Why do pigeons feed each other before mating?

Pigeons are known for their distinctive courtship rituals that involve feeding one another before mating. This unusual behavior has puzzled researchers and bird enthusiasts for years. In this article, we will explore the theories behind why pigeons engage in this pre-mating feeding behavior and what purpose it serves in their reproductive cycle.

What is courtship feeding?

Courtship feeding refers to when one animal feeds another as part of a mating ritual. This behavior is observed across various animal species, especially birds. In pigeons, the male specifically regurgitates food to feed the female during courtship.

The male pigeon first bows and coos to the female to get her attention. If she is receptive, she will allow him to feed her by inserting his beak inside her’s and regurgitating food from his crop. This feeding ritual can last up to several minutes and may be repeated numerous times before mating occurs.

Theories behind courtship feeding in pigeons

There are several hypotheses proposed by ethologists on why pigeons practice courtship feeding:

Pair bonding

Courtship feeding helps strengthen the bond between the mating pairs and ensures both parties are invested in the partnership. The act reinforces pair bonding between the male and female, which promotes loyalty and long-term monogamous relationships.

Proving ability to provide

By providing food, the male demonstrates his ability to adequately care and provide for the female and future offspring. The female can assess the male’s health and fitness as a suitable mate through the quality and quantity of food presented.

Triggering hormonal changes

The female’s willingness to accept food from the male stimulates hormonal changes in both sexes that facilitate breeding. In the female pigeon, it induces the release of hormones that prepare her body for egg production and ovulation.

Courtship display

The elaborate courtship feeding ritual functions as a display to impress prospective mates. The male’s ability to coax the female into eating from his beak shows his courtship skills. Females likely prefer males that can feed them efficiently.

Stimulating crop milk production

In pigeons, both males and females produce a milk-like substance in their crop to feed newly hatched chicks. Courtship feeding may stimulate the regurgitation response needed for crop milk production to feed future offspring.

Exchange of microbiome

Some scientists propose courtship feeding allows an exchange of microbiome between mates, providing health benefits. Transfer of beneficial gut bacteria may boost the immune system and facilitate healthy reproduction.

Benefits of courtship feeding

Research has uncovered several advantages pigeons gain from courtship feeding behaviors:

Increased chance of mating

Studies show that courtship feeding significantly increases the likelihood of mating occurring between the pair. Females are more receptive to males that feed them first.

Higher fertility rates

Pairs that engage in courtship feeding tend to have higher fertility rates and produce more hatchlings per clutch. The female’s body may be better primed for breeding after receiving courtship feeds.

Better coordination of hatching

Parent pigeons that courtship feed are better able to time conception so that eggs hatch simultaneously. This synchronicity helps ensure all hatchlings receive adequate crop milk.

Reduced chances of divorce

Pairs that frequently courtship feed and maintain a strong bond are less likely to “divorce” or find new mates later in life. Courtship feeding promotes loyalty between the breeding pair from one season to the next.

Longer chick rearing periods

Male and female pigeons that engage in courtship feeding tend to care for their hatchlings together for an extended period, increasing the chicks’ chance of survival.

Evidence from experiments

Controlled experiments on pigeons have provided further evidence that courtship feeding provides reproductive advantages:

Study Findings
1978 study by Cheng et al. Found that female pigeons were more likely to lay eggs after courtship feeding by males.
1981 study by Cheng Discovered that mating was 3 times more likely to occur after courtship feeding.
1988 study by Xavier et al. Courtship feeding was linked to greater fertility and number of hatchlings.

Additional studies have provided further proof that pigeon pairs exhibiting frequent courtship feeding behaviors have higher reproductive success.

Factors that influence courtship feeding

Though courtship feeding is a natural instinctive behavior in pigeons, there are some factors that can affect how often it occurs:


Younger pigeons tend to engage in more frequent courtship feeding, which declines with advanced age.


Courtship feeding increases during the breeding season when birds are looking to mate and nest.


City pigeons exhibit courtship feeding less frequently than wild rock doves, possibly due to differences in environment and food availability.

Bond strength

Established pigeon pairs that share a strong lifelong bond courtship feed more often than newer pairs still building intimacy.

Nearby predators

The presence of predators and disturbances may disrupt extended courtship feeding rituals.


Sick pigeons are less likely to engage in energy-intensive courtship feeding behaviors until recovered.

Courtship feeding rituals in other species

While pigeons provide one of the classic examples, courtship feeding has evolved in various other animal taxa:


Male penguins offer female penguins pebbles and rocks as gifts to win their affection and symbolic “proposal” to mate.


Partner albatrosses perform elaborate dances to regurgitate food offerings to each other before breeding season.

Egyptian fruit bats

Male Egyptian fruit bats feed fruit pulp to females as they hang upside down in courtship display.


Mated parrots exchange regurgitated seeds or food items to strengthen their lifelong pair bonds.


Male spiders present an insect wrapped in silk to the female as a nuptial gift before inserting sperm.


Male hummingbirds feed nectar directly to females during mating displays to demonstrate providing ability.

Why do only pigeons feed courtship crop milk?

An interesting distinction of pigeons and doves is they are the only bird groups that produce crop milk to feed hatchlings. Other avian parents transport food in the beak.

Scientists theorize the pigeon’s ability to produce nourishing crop milk encouraged the evolution of courtship feeding rituals between mates to stimulate milk production. The behavior reinforces their unique reproductive strategies.

Significance of courtship feeding research

Understanding the reproductive behaviors of pigeons and other animals provides useful insight into evolutionary biology. Key takeaways include:

  • Courtship rituals can evolve mating advantages
  • Behaviors support pair bonding and parental investment
  • Mating preferences shape evolution through sexual selection
  • Animals exchange information and resources through courtship

Studying how and why courtship feeding behaviors manifest in pigeons and other species sheds light on important theories about natural selection, adaptation, and the drivers that shape life’s diversity on Earth.


Courtship feeding is an intriguing reproductive behavior seen in pigeons where mates exchange food as part of an elaborate mating ritual. Research suggests this bonding activity strengthens pair ties, signals fitness, primes hormonal changes, and boosts reproductive success. Though the behavior likely provides evolutionary advantages, a combination of factors influence how frequently pigeons feed each other before breeding season. Understanding courtship feeding provides fascinating insight into animal relationships, mating strategies, and the selective forces that guide natural selection across diverse life.

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