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Cotehele National Trust property, house from courtyard
Cotehele Dovecote © The National Trust UK
Feral pigeons, Columbia livia, descended
History of Doves and Dovecotes
The words pigeon and dove are used interchangeably, but the white domestic pigeon is generally called a dove. The pigeons we see in our gardens are wood pigeons, Columba palumbus, but those in the streets and on buildings are feral, Columbia livia, descended from wild blue rock pigeons. Historically, these birds were kept in dovecotes as a ready supply of young birds, or 'squabs', as meat for the kitchen.
In England, from the time of the Normans (11th Century), thousands of stone dovecotes were built by wealthy landowners to house pigeons. They were the only people allowed by law to build these structures. The wealthy were then able to provide themselves, their households and visitors with the tender meat of young pigeons or squabs.
Dovecotes often had outside ledges for the pigeons to perch on, and to shelter from the wind, and plentiful inside nesting sites, the 'pigeon holes' to encourage breeding.
In about 1730 the brown rat Rattus norvegicus was brought to England by timber ships from the Baltic and spread rapidly. More voracious predators than the indigenous black rat, they could gnaw their way into dovecotes to eat the eggs and squabs. The lower nest holes in existing dovecotes had then to be blocked and the walls smoothly rendered to prevent brown rats from climbing to reach the nests. Consequently, dovecotes built after the middle of the C18th always had nest holes more than 3ft from the ground.
At Tavistock there was once a dovecote near the Abbey precinct by the river, and a number of others around the parish. A stone dovecote still survives at Cotehele manor in Cornwall. It is made of slatestone, with a single outside resting ledge and had an internal ladder or 'potence' to access the higher nest holes. It was probably built in the C15th, to replace another from 1353, when Cotehele manor house was built.
The dovecote is sited near the pond, and is now occupied by a group of white doves. They need a good supply of water to produce the 'pigeons milk', on which the young birds are fed. This is a special secretion from fat cells in the crop and is produced by both male and female birds, who both feed they young.
White dove near Cotehele dovecote
Pigeons lay a clutch of two eggs, which are incubated for seventeen days. Up to ten broods can be produced each year. The young grow rapidly, fed by both parents, and are ready to fly within four weeks, and in nature would then leave the nest. Squabs are as large as the parent bird, but as their flying muscles have not been used the meat is very tender. They could be quickly roasted or baked, and inns would sometimes keep pigeons as a quick way to provide meat for unexpected guests.
Household accounts of great houses from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century show that the first squabs of the year hatched in early March and were ready for eating 3-4 weeks later. Pigeons might first appear on the table on Easter Sunday. Some were taken from the dovecote for eating in April and May, then fewer until the autumn, when most young pigeons were produced. Pigeons were not usually eaten in December, January and February, although they can breed in winter, when the few squabs available could fetch very high prices. Cultivating pigeons in dovecotes for young squabs is not considered ethical today and pigeon from butchers' shops are mature wild wood pigeon. Mature pigeons were not eaten by the owners of dovecotes, as the meat was tough, but they might have been given away to estate workers.
Devonshire cookery recipes often include squab pie, which originally contained young pigeon, but recipes after 1737 replaced the pigeon with lamb, apples and onions. Squab pie was a useful pie to be kept in the larder for guests to great houses like Cotehele.
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