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They direct to the same Wikipedia page which suggests doves are more often slightly smaller but indicates a lack of consistent difference. I had thought there was a stronger distinction...but does anybody here have sources/views on any difference (or equivalence) that may exist between the terms?

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    When most people say dove, they actually mean turtle dove, one specific species of dove that features prominently in the culture. In fact, I would venture to say many people are unaware that the name dove can apply to a whole class of animals, as with wolf or chipmunk.
    – choster
    Nov 3, 2015 at 3:35
  • It's like the difference between heron and egret. It used to matter, but doesn't anymore because neither are important economically any more.
    – Phil Sweet
    Feb 3 at 0:33

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Pigeon and dove are common names, not scientific names, just as (for example) American buffalo and mountain goat are. As such, they refer to animals rather haphazardly (and variably) on the basis of popular usage, not genetic similarity and shared ancestry.

There also tends to be considerable inconsistency in the name applied to a particular creature depending on where and when the name is used. For example, the Wikipedia article you cite states that "The species most commonly referred to as 'pigeon' is the feral rock pigeon, common in many cities." And yet Roger Tory Peterson, in his various field guides to North American birds, consistently refers to the "feral rock pigeon" as a "rock dove or domestic pigeon"—even though he identifies the similar-sized and -shaped band-tailed pigeon as a "band-tailed pigeon." (Both were formerly identified as members of the genus Columba and thus considered quite close genetically, though the band-tailed is now listed as belonging to the genus Patagioenas).

In North America, two of the three pigeons with wild populations—the band-tailed pigeon and the red-billed pigeon are native to the Americas, while the rock dove/pigeon is not (all three are relatively large, plump birds). Meanwhile, several members of the Columbidae family native North America and Central America—mourning dove, white-winged dove, white-tipped dove, Inca dove, and ground dove—are normally identified as doves, as are two introduced species—the Eurasian or African ringed turtle dove and the spotted dove from India and Southeast Asia.

For most of North America, the common species are the rock dove/pigeon and the mourning dove. Most people who have a passing familiarity with North American birds will call the former a pigeon and the latter a dove.


Update (February 2, 2024): To illustrate both the persistence and the changeability of the popular understanding and the figurative connotations of generic animal names, I offer the entries for dove and pigeon from Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847):

DOVE, n. 1. The popular name of several species of Columba, of Linnaeus, a genus of birds of his order Passeres, most of which are called pigeons. The different species, which are popularly called doves, are distinguished by some additional term prefixed. [2.] A word of of endearment, or an emblem of innocence.

...

PIGEON, n. A gallinaceous bird, of the genus Columba, of several species, as the stock-dove, the ring-dove, the turtle-dove and the migratory or wild pigeon of America. The domestic pigeon breeds in a box, often attached to a building, called a dove-cote or pigeon-house. The wild pigeon builds a nest in a tree in the forest. {To pigeon, is a cant word for to fleece, or strip of money by the arts of gambling.}

It thus appears that U.S. popular popular usage in the 1840s did not focus on morphological or otherwise scientific distinctions between pigeons as a group and doves as a group, but adopted the name dove or pigeon for a given species as a matter of sheer happenstance, depending on common names that attached arbitrarily to a species in a particular locality. The "migratory or wild pigeon of America" that Webster cites is the now-extinct species that we refer to today as the "passenger pigeon"; its huge numbers in the 1840s would have justified its being understood by such an imprecise name as "wild pigeon."

The difference in figurative use of the two terms is striking. Some people still use dove as a term of endearment, a usage that goes back to Shakespeare's time at least, and the word still connotes innocence; but it seems to me that its most powerful symbolic association today is with peace. It also has a related association (going back to the story of Noah) with hope or the end of a period of extreme hardship.

Pigeon, on the other hand, carries negative associations of "unwitting victim" (evidently by transference from the slang meaning of pigeon as a verb that Webster mentions) or, somewhat contrarily, betrayer ("stool pigeon").

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Pigeons and Doves are Columbidae of the Columbiformes. Because 'pigeon' and 'dove' are common, not scientific names, which term may be chosen is somewhat variable and interchangable locally and regionally. For example, what is commonly called a 'rock dove' in one area may be called a 'pigeon' in another, or by a different speaker in the same area.

See the Tree of Life page for a fairly exhaustive species listing including in parentheses after the scientific name common names with (frequently) either 'pigeon' or 'dove' attached. Some of the names are linked to photos and descriptions.

The difference between 'pigeons' and 'doves' is, generally, and noting that common usage may not always observe the distinction, what you mentioned: doves are slightly smaller and have pointed tails; pigeons are slightly larger and have rounded tails. In common usage, again, the distinction is also felt to be that pigeons are urban, doves wild; doves are thought to be white, pigeons grey; doves are thought of more as symbols of peace, gentleness and prosperity, while pigeons are thought of more often as flying rats.

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  • Thought of as "rats" in regard to the pigeons' scavenging habits, not their appearance. (bats look like flying rats.) Nov 3, 2015 at 7:06
  • @BrianHitchcock, that was true as I understood it on the occasions I heard the description, although the (wrongly ascribed) greyness played into the comparison also. Personally, I'm rather fond of all three. Pigeons are outstanding for their ability to fly straight up, no take off. Rats, I admit, are my least favorite of the three.
    – JEL
    Nov 3, 2015 at 7:51
  • The original VTOL craft! They should have named a plane Pigeon; they already have one named Osprey. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_Boeing_V-22_Osprey Nov 4, 2015 at 13:22
  • @BrianHitchcock, good thought! I suppose it would be beneath the dignity of the US military...they wouldn't want to get all lovey-dovey; the British, though, or the Australians, maybe the Chinese. There's already the V/STOL Harrier. Too bad the pigeon is potential prey for harriers. Still, such an aircraft could be used for salvaging/scavenging without misnomerism.
    – JEL
    Nov 5, 2015 at 18:39

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