Researching: Dovecotes as wild nutrient collectors

| Animal Systems, Nutrient Cycling | comments | Author :


Dovecotes are a great addition to any small farm (and possibly your backyard too). Keeping doves is like keeping chickens, in a way, except there’s minimal feeding involved if you take the traditional approach. The doves fly off every morning, forage within their natural radius, and come home each night to roost.

And when they come home, they deliver to the floor of the dovecote free nutrients, in the form of guano. So firstly there’s free fertilizer, with no feeding costs. Secondly. if you’re that way inclined, there’s a seasonal supply of dove eggs, and squabs. Wild protein, delivered to your door. 

Dovecotes in Egypt
Dovecotes in Egypt
European wooden dovecote, with rotating ladder for easy squab collection
European wooden dovecote, with rotating ladder for easy squab collection

It’s the wild protein that we’re most interested in, to be blunt. We’re looking for more resilient systems to stack together at Milkwood Farm – to provide multiple  intermittent streams of animal protein for the lowest possible inputs.

We have our flock of laying and utility (multi-purpose) chickens, and they’re great. So are the ducks. But they all take an awful lot of supplementary grain and pellets to supplement their grassland scratch-and-pick diet.

Doves, however. They don’t, in theory, require daily feeding, except in particularly bad drought conditions. They fly off, forage as they may, and come home at dusk to roost. Gotta love that as a daily routine.

In addition to being 100% foragers, your average dovecote is quite fox-proof, which are the main predator around these parts. Rats we will have to guard against, but i rekon that’s doable.

Just to flag it, the term dove and pigeon is considered by most folks to be interchangeable (at the risk of bringing both dove and pigeon fanciers down on me here). Some refer to the larger breeds as pigeons and the smaller breeds as doves.

William Holman Hunt: 1827-1910: The Dovecote
William Holman Hunt: 1827-1910: The Dovecote

Dove life Cycle:

Doves start laying in mid-spring from what I can tell, with an average of two eggs per clutch. After hatching, the young doves (squabs) can’t fly until after the 4-week old mark.

Until then, the squabs sit in their parents’ pigeonhole within their dovecote, and get fed ‘pigeon milk’ (regurgitated food) by their parents. They grow rapidly until they learn to fly, then get shoo-ed off by their parents at about 5 weeks old.

The kicker here is that, at the 4 week old mark, squabs cannot fly. This means they are composed of tender meat which has not yet ‘muscled up’ through daily flying. Yet at 4 weeks old, squabs are at least 1/2 the size of their parents, and sometimes closer to 3/4 of the size.

Of course if you don’t want to eat them you could just let them go. Or sell them. Or collect the eggs, so that you never end up with squabs.

But if you do like the idea of adding an occasional amount of zero-footprint, forage fed, hyper-local, non-factory bird meat to your diet, squab pie it is for you. And for us, hopefully one day soonish.

Adult doves can raise between 10-15 squabs a year, for up to 10 years, which sounds like a pretty resilient system to me. Some adult doves live up to 30.

Squabs ‘dress out’ at about 200g a bird from a ‘wild fed’ operation, which is admittedly not heaps. The industrially-farmed versions of squabs dress out at around 600g, either by artificial feeding or by feeding the parent doves god knows what. But that’s not the system we’re looking at so let’s leave that there.

So – 200g of dark meat which is apparently lusciously tender and somewhere between chicken and duck, with reasonable fat content. A batch of them sounds like a fine occasional pie.

Keeping in mind also that all (yep, ALL) the chicken that you have ever eaten in your entire life (unless it was your own roosters or hens) was killed when it was between 4-6 weeks of age (though some  broiler operations take them to the ripe old age of 8 weeks) , the above age for squabs is… well, it is what it is.

So. If you’re ok with all of the above, then a Dovecote could be a darn fine idea.

Dovecotes: the options:

Dovecotes range from cutesy i-dont-even-have-doves garden versions to magnificently large contraptions of stone or adobe, depending where you’re from.

Traditionally dovecotes in Europe were a sign of status, with various laws decreeing that only the upper classes could have them. Therefore squab was also an upper-class meat in those areas.

The dovecotes in the middle east seem to be a different affair. They’re just another layer of food security, especially in urban areas. They are big or small, round or square, and made of adobe.

The dovecotes of Mit Ghamr, Egypt
The dovecotes of Mit Ghamr, Egypt
Dovecote at Newark Castle, England
Dovecote at Newark Castle, England

Keeping Utility Pigeons:

There’s many varieties of doves and pigeons. The majority are bred for showing or for keeping or for racing, not so much (at least in the west) for eating.

The ones bred for meat (utility pigeons) vary also, depending on whether you’re looking for foraging birds who fly out on a daily basis or (to put it nicely) the stay-at-home types…

Once you’ve got your doves and built your dovecote, your pigeons need to be ‘homed’. This is the process of re-setting the doves’ ground-zero, as it were… resetting their internal compasses to ensure they actually come home (to the home you’ve built them) each day at dusk.

To home your pigeons  you need to shut them inside the dovecote (if it is large) or alternately in a netted area immediately around the dovecote (if it is small) for an entire lunar cycle. Or up to 6 weeks, if the birds are older.

Once the moon has gone through one complete month (during which time of course you need to feed and water them inside the dovecote area), your pigeons’ internal compasses are apparently re-set to where they’re currently housed as the new dovecote. And then you are in business of keeping doves.

What type of Pigeon:

White King Pigeons
White King Pigeons

From what we have gathered so far, the most common utility pigeon in Australia is the White King Pigeon.

However I haven’t been able to get anyone to tell me if the currently bred utility version of this breed can actually fly when fully grown, if allowed. It seems highly geared to the commercial barn-raised pigeon market where they just hobble about.

Other possibilities include Yellow Carneau’s and American Reds. I also like the look of the Texan pioneer although, as one breeder states, they’re not chickens.

An Australian bred Carneau Pigeon
An Australian bred Carneau Pigeon – another utility breed

From the research I’ve done so far, however, most western pigeon keepers who breed utility birds for the table now seem to keep them in cages, not in dovecotes. I think this is probably for ease of handling, to allow for grain feeding and to maximise body mass in both the adults and the squabs.

And also possibly because the breeds have had flight bred out of them, through a focus on weight gain and also because of the weight gain. Not dissimilar to broiler chickens who are bred to come to full size at 6 weeks old and which couldn’t fly if they tried.

However the system we’re looking at is the old-school version… shut the doves in for one month, then let them fly and forage, coming home to roost. Becuase the main components of this system that I’m interested is the pigeons gathering of nutrient from the surrounding countryside, and bringing that back to our farm, so we can harvest it as nutrient rich guano, and squab meat.

I think I might need to join the Australian National Pigeon Association and see if i can find some like-minded folks.


Fielding is a term to describe when racing pigeons don’t come home on time because they’ve literally found a field. With things in it to eat. And so they stop and have a peck, instead of racing home again in record time.

So I suppose what we’re going for is a dovecote full of pro-fielding pigeons. Not that we live in a area with many grain fields at all – it’s all sheep and grapes and cattle around Mudgee, But there’s plenty of forage out there in the form of seeding grasses, all the year round.

Nutrient harvesting – guano

Dove and pigeon poop is high in nitrogen and a much prized fertiliser for various crops. It turns out that the nitrogen in pigeon guano is much slower-release than the nitrogen in chicken and other bird droppings.

Also, doves and pigeons rarely poop in flight, so they deposit the majority of this resource at night, while they’re roosting.

While some cultures see the guano as the primary reason for having a dovecote and routinely harvest the guano from their dovecotes and apply it to their various crops (some compost or age it first, others don’t), there is also a camp of folks (mostly on western internet forums, from what i can tell) who see pigeon guano as almost radioactively toxic.

Again, there’s probably parallels with chicken production here. If you’re talking birds raised in an intensive environment or in high concentration, then toxicity of the guano is likely due to its concentration and the bird’s general health.

As with any animal manure collection from an area that has a high concentration, we’d expect to take precautions when harvesting this resource – mask and gloves. But precautions like this seem obvious and reasonable. Just part of the task of harvesting a valuable resource.


Nutrient Harvesting – squabs

Here’s something to look forward to… there’s some pretty tasty recipes out there – here’s a great list that also includes a pigeon plucking guide.

As said above, the harvesting of squabs would be an occasional occurrence within this kind of system, but no less tasty for that. Just like our irregular supply of hunted rabbits, squab is another kind of wild game, as it were, that intermittently supplements our farm diet.

So there you have it – another strategy for catching and storing energy, and also valuing the marginal and the edges to strengthen the overall resilience of a system. A little peck here, a bit of grass seed there… And occasionally,  BBQed squab.

And nitrogen-rich guano for our food growing systems, composed of foraged nutrients and minerals. Sounds like a pretty good small-farm animal system to us.

>> More posts about small farm animal systems here…

See the comments

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44 responses to “Researching: Dovecotes as wild nutrient collectors

  1. An excellent idea. At the moment we have turtle doves roosting in our gum tree and crapping all over the salad bed. Guano good, but not as a salad dressing. Now if I were to provide them with a comfy dovecote …

    Not much meat on them compared to a big boofer pigeon. But on the other hand the horny little devils seem to make babies all year round …

  2. You freak me out sometimes. I think of something and you post it. Wild. We’ve been getting pigeon manure from a guy who races them and that gets used in the bed prep before the english spinach, growing fat quick growing spinach leaves. For some reason the nutrient In the pigeon manure works for spinach. We can’t grow as good or as bug free spinach with any other composted manure not even chicken although it comes close. So I was thinking maybe a dovecote and we can eat them as we like. And here on my holiday when there’s time for such things, I’m thinking maybe I’ll read up on it and you Kirsten Bradley have done the work! Hooray! I’ve got time to go laze around doing something else. Thanks. See you soon

  3. Yes! I read a few years ago that pigeon manure is the best and have drawn a mini dovecote for my garden… my grandfather made one for their backyard in Serbia… my mum drew a picture of theirs… nice to connect with past generations… important to use proven techniques. Love your photo of these large dovecotes. Maryanne.

  4. We’ve been talking about this for too many years! You may have given us the nudge we needed. Wondering how they’ll go in wet tropics though? Build a nice dovecote and then have to supplementary feed them anyway, wouldn’t be happy, as like idea of wild, but am happy to top up feed for health/husbandry reasons. The odd feed probably a good habit to keep them in anyway. I read years ago that there was a dove/pigeon that was semi territorial and would chase parrots out of the orchard but have never heard of since!! Maybe I was dreaming… I guess if they are out all day feeding they can’t chase parrots anyway, oh well, protein and guano will do nicely, thankyou very much.

  5. Pigeon manure is the best of all for melons and other cucurbits,
    citrus and solanums here.
    especially the free range stuff
    feral birds live in grain silo elevator nearby.
    the guano is caked thick on the ground for easy gathering.

    I also get it from a local pigeon racer…
    we release them from our front lawn.
    last weekend it was 100 birds.
    fun for the kids.
    he delivers manure
    when he drops the birds off for a toss.

    My plan when I moved here 5yrs ago has been to have a mudbrick dovecote.
    plenty of grain grown here and plenty of grain lost
    might as well ‘harvest’ that grain as squabs and manure.
    not quite there yet though.

  6. Love this idea, So where does one find a couple of pigeons to get started? Does anyone have any hints for a DIY dovecote? Is there a breed that is better for eggs?

  7. People who keep self-foraging pigeons say that their biggest losses in birds come from predator like hawks and eagles. Collecting the guano can be tricky. The ancients used to build large adobe structures protected with a straw roof and just let it accumulate on the lower levels until they could rake it out. No need to worry about curing it then. There’s also stories of European peasants engaged in high level grain theft from the lands of nearby locals: release all the pigeons at night, have them scour the grain fields and when they return you give them a quick belly rub until they release all the undigested grain. Repeat until dawn. If the whole village took part they could steal tons of grain in a short time without the nobles figuring out what was going on! Hence in many countries only nobles were allowed to keep pigeons.

  8. Do I need to worry about them harvesting from fields soaked in pesticides and spreading those residues through poop to my garden beds and into my body through the meat and veggies grown in that poop?

      1. Hi Kirsten – did you guys build a dovecote in the end? Have you got any good plans to share? I am getting 20-30 in a week’s time, so on the hunt for DIY plans that somehow has successfully used. Thanks Dylan

  9. Great post! I’ve been a little obsessed with dovecotes since spending time on a permaculture site in the Middle East – they just make so much sense. Having just come back home to Oz, we’re dreaming on setting up our own in the backyard – great to have your research on hand!

  10. This is a very well thought out and informative post, but kind of ironic that the photo chosen for King Pigeons is from a rescue organization. I know Elizabeth personally (and adopted six beautiful pigeons from her) and I don’t think she’d really appreciate it being used as an image reference for squab farming.

    That said, hawks and other raptors are huge predators of wild doves and pigeons and will snatch them out of the air and even go into an open dovecote. Unnaturally colored birds (white or pied) stand out in nature and are easy targets. Free-flying also will expose them to disease and parasites from wild birds. Rats/mice are a huge issue in open coops, they can climb like crazy and will eat not only any feed and eggs but the birds as well. Snakes also enjoy birds and eggs and can climb coop walls. Making an open dovecote truly predator proof seems like an impossible task. I’m not trying to harsh your ideas, but just thought I’d speak a bit from experience (I learned the hard way with some of my first chickens).

    1. thanks for that! the whole free flyers will get disease is an interesting one,i’m hearing very mixed opinions on that one, but cheers for your perspective. From the egyptian families I’ve talked to, raising squabs for meat in open coops is obviously possible, because they all do it, and they do it very effectively – yep there’s anti-rat strategies in there of course.

      Guess it depends on the wildlife of your area. We raise and keep plenty of chickens without a worry (with what must be adequate protection). And good point on the King Pigeon image thanks, I’ll change it.

      1. It’s definitely a locality issue, there’s no guarantee they’ll get diseases or pests it’s just more likely given their exposure. We’ve had West Nile come into California in the last several years, and many of the pigeons that have been taken in by the rescue have had neurological damage from things like salmonella (though it’s hard to say if they contracted that from how they were raised before release/escape, or from being in the wild). But I honestly don’t know if any of those bird illnesses can be passed on after cooking, so who knows.
        Anyway, I’ve enjoyed following all the permaculture info on your blog, please keep up the fascinating work! It was quite surreal to see a local picture come up (but thank you for swapping it). 🙂

  11. Since skate-proofing of ledges and rails became common in cities, skateboarders have carried tools to undo this restriction on their creative outlet. I think permies should take a cue and de pigeon-proof the freeway and train overpasses of the cities. Bring back the guano!

  12. Doves (and dovecotes) have been on my radar for some time too! I know of a guy nearby who raises doves for meat, although he keeps them in a large aviary.

    My plan (eventually!) is to buy a couple of pairs from him, and keep them in an aviary. Then I’ll start experimenting with running a free-flight dovecote using their offspring. They’ll be “homed” to my property, and if they get attacked by predators or something I’ll still have the aviary doves to build numbers back up. Eventually I’d like to evolve it to the point of not needing an aviary for them anymore.

    I’m keen to see what type of dovecote you build!

  13. Thanks for this post, very inspiring.
    I’ve also been thinking and reading about the possibility of free ranging pigeons for squab and guarno, for a year or so.
    My guess is that domestically bred birds would not survive well outside a cage.
    Because of predators (as other have mentioned) and also they may be inefficient foragers.
    I think you would need wild birds.
    I have started attracting a few native crested pigeons to my place (with a little seed feeding)
    Next I would like to make a good nestbox/dovecote for them, that is somehow secure from pests and predators.
    Its probably totally impractical to ever expect to harvest anything from this breed.
    But they are fun to watch and study anyway.
    Also I guess its highly illegal to look at a native Australian animal sideways, even though I would be increasing their numbers.

  14. Usually love your posts and am an avid reader, hoping to make it out to one of your mushroom workshops one day! But this post has me a little worried.

    What are the consequences on the native fauna and flora of introducing such a pest species? If they are flying about surely there is a good chance that eventually some won’t come home and will go feral! (After all that’s how they went feral in the first place).

    From natures point of view I don’t see how this is any different to piggers introducing pigs so they can hunt them.

    In Alice Springs there is a concerted trapping effort to remove all feral pigeons from the local area. Seems that if that succeeds it could be undermined by one permie deciding to use a dovecote!!!!

    1. I get where you’re coming from Chris but i also think they’re like any other animal system – well managed they’re fine, but if you do a bad job there’s potential for it to be not good for the wider environment – the same could be said about farmed pigs, goats, sheep, ducks, etc that get out… hence why we need more skills and knowledge in this area so it can be assessed as how best to do it (including whihc breeds) and then be done well, not badly. Alice is an interesting case – that’s a lot of wild protein that could be harnessed and harvested there… though I assume, like the NT camel culls, they’ll just be killed and dumped in a pit instead of seeing all that wild protein harvested and re-used…

      1. But isn’t there a fundamental difference between an animal that stays within the farm behind closed gates with no chance of going feral and one that we actively encourage to go outside our farm? Particularly one that has a good chance of going feral and hence out of our control all together?

        I feel we have a responsibility to not upset the natural balance by introducing feral animals or plants. Consider all the damage rabbits and fox’s have done!!

        Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of living closer to nature and blurring that line as suggested in the article. But if we are to do it then surely we should be doing it with locally native animals to insure we don’t accidentally introduce a pest that will devastate the local balance?

        This may currently be illegal. But maybe that’s what we need to work on?

        1. Yep i agree. However apparently the whole point well-made dovecotes is that they’re the difference between life and death for most utility pigeon breeds – ie these pigeons go very poorly in the wild, as they get eaten rather quickly by predatory birds, and rats and snakes get the young. As far as i understand it, its the racing breeds (faster and possibly smarter) that make up the feral population… not to point the finger at the poor old racing pigeons but that’s a fundamental difference, from what i’ve figured thus far…

          1. Well I guess if one was 100% certain that they weren’t going to introduce a pest species than it would be a great idea. But I’m not sure how one could be 100% sure without some type of preliminary study in the local area?

            If they are successfully out and about gathering food during the day then that’s the first hurdle overcome to going feral. Then all it takes is one enterprising pair of youngsters to find an abandoned house, nest hollow or better yet grain silo (which might look pretty similar to the dovecot the young lovers are used to) and bang. They’ve gone feral. If they manage to breed then in a few generations they will have adapted and there will be no stopping them!!

  15. Here in Aotearoa/NZ ,on a permaculture property called Raindow Valley Farm, a dovecote was built that could move along rails placed on either side of the vege beds.
    No need to collect and spread!

  16. I bought 2 pairs of king pigeons about 15 years ago for my backyard permaculture garden in East Kangaloon NSW. They were a great addition requiring only a safe place to nest and a handful of supplementary grain each day. They loved their new outdoor life and enjoyed flying even though they had been bred and kept in an aviary previously. Unfortunately they also really liked sitting on the roof and I had to get rid of them after only a year as it was impossible to keep them off the house and shed roofs and vast quantities of guano in the drinking water was a real problem.

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