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Grit and Gizzards – how birds digest seeds


Seed-eating birds utilize a unique process in order to digest their hard-shelled diets. Digestive enzymes cannot penetrate the seed shells (for doves and other species that swallow the shells) nor, in some cases, the inner seed covering (species that crack seeds before eating). To get around this, birds have evolved a muscular organ known as the gizzard, or ventriculus, to help grind their food into smaller pieces.

Seed-eating and certain other birds increase the gizzard’s effectiveness by swallowing stones and gravel, which are stored and act as grinding surfaces. These stones are periodically regurgitated or passed in the feces, possibly to prevent their becoming smooth and, consequently, less effective. Be sure to always have grit available to your seed-eating birds, prod or they will not be able to derive adequate nutrition from even a well-planned diet. Bits of cuttlebone also help to grind seeds, but only temporarily.

Pigeons swallow huge amounts of gravel, as they consume their seeds shell and all. While working with reptiles years ago at the Bronx Zoo, it was standard practice to trap pigeons for use as crocodile food (sorry, pigeon fanciers – I like pigeons too, but it was impossible to keep them out of certain exhibits, and they were implicated in the spread of diseases to the collection and staff). However, tests showed that the pigeons’ lead levels were incredibly high, due in part to ingesting the heavily-polluted Bronx gravel, and we ceased the practice (the pigeons were and remain fat and healthy none-the-less).

In the Bronx community where I grew up, “city” pigeons featured in the diets of people from several European countries. Elderly but quick-handed women tossed wet towels over pigeons as they came to feed on fire escapes (on bread put out by the same women, of course!) and knocked the squabs from nests with long bamboo canes. I never protested, despite my interest in all things avian, as their quick reflexes were just as likely to be used against annoying children as tasty pigeons! Well, that neighborhood is still home to some quite elderly people, so perhaps the lead-laced pigeons have not had their revenge!

A number of fishes and crocodilians have gizzards and utilize stones – more on that in the future.


  1. avatar

    Dear Sir/Madam:

    I have recently saved a baby pigeon from death. Some kids hit is with a slingshot and punctured its gizzard.
    I have cleaned the wound with water and dabbed some merthiolate on it, then wrapped it with a small bandage. I understand that pigeons need the gizzard for digestion.
    Is there something else I should do? The gaping wound is about .5 cms wide and some little stones fell out as well as several seeds.
    I am concerned with feeding it and it not being able to digest its food. What should I do?

    I would be very thankful for any help you could provide.



  2. avatar

    Hello Sven, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    That’s a wonderful thing you have done…I’m always surprised by such incidents, even though I’ve seen such all too many times.

    It sounds like you’ve taken all the right steps and have done a fine job. There are 2 possible concerns from this point:

    If the pigeon is eating seeds, the pressure of food within the crop may tend to keep the wound open and prevent or at least hinder healing. Tube feeding might be required for a time. Secondly, there is always the possibility of infection, especially in an area, such as the crop, which remains in contact with food.

    The safest course of action would be to have the bird checked over by a veterinarian. Many vets accept injured wild birds and treat them without charge. If you are in the USA, a very useful resource is the American Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators (http://www.tc.umn.edu/~devo0028/contact.htm; 320-230-9920). They will be able to refer you to a local vet who accepts pigeons or a licensed bird rehabilitator in your area.

    Please let me know if you need any further information.

    Good luck and thank you for taking a stand against such terrible behavior.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar


    Thank you very much for your reply.

    I removed most of the seeds and grit that were in the gizzard thus considerably decreasing the pressure. Furthermore I placed gauze around the area in such a way to distribute the pressure from food elsewhere.

    Nontheless, I will take the bird tomorrow to the vet.

    I am a bit worried that it mostly sits motionless on the bottom of the box I prepared for it.

    I did get it to drink some water a few hours ago, and then just put it in the box. It seems to be doing fine, albeit totally exhausted.

    If you have any further suggestions, please let me know.

    Thanks a lot.


  4. avatar

    By the way, I am in Argentina. And frankly, the vets here frighten me a bit.

  5. avatar

    Hello Sven, Frank Indiviglio here.

    You’re quite welcome, thanks for the kind reply.

    Arranging the gauze as you did should go a long way in improving the bird’s chances for a recovery.

    It may be staying still due to the stress of the ordeal, and of course exhaustion as you mention. If you can take the bird to a vet tomorrow, best not to worry about feeding it, so as to give the injured area a rest. The vet can medicate the bird against infection, which can also sap its strength and may contribute to the behavior you are seeing.

    Keep it warm (25-26 C if possible) and in a quiet, darkened location. An old towel placed over the enclosure to cut down on light will likely cause the bird to settle down and sleep.

    Good luck and please keep me posted when you have the chance,

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    Hello Sven,

    HA!….interesting, I heard something similar from a friend in your country some years ago. I have a vet contact in Venezuela but, sorry to say, none further south. Well, there are good and bad here in NY as well.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar


    Thanks for the prompt re-reply (hehe).

    Well I just checked on the poor fella, he is completely still, feathers a bit fluffed, sitting on the floor of a small box with newspaper and some leafs from the tree I think it came from (so as to provide something familiar).

    It has no light and is in the quietest corner of the house.

    Now, another question: I have another pigeon which I found last week, albeit in much better shape (only had bumped into a car), and had no broken bones. I am weighing the idea of putting both in the same cage at a later date (when the chick is about 50% recovered).

    And one last question. That other pigeon has no tail feathers. How long do they take to regrow (approximately)?

    Thanks again.


    PD: WIll keep you posted. Thanks soooo much for the help.

  8. avatar

    Hehe, sorry, the question was. DO you think its a good idea to put them both in the same cage?


  9. avatar

    Hello Sven, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Best thing for the bird now is rest; you have done all that is possible without a vet.

    Pigeons of different ages normally get along well, but allot will depend on their physical condition…if one is lethargic it may be stressed by being confined with a more active bird.

    Tail feathers can take quite several weeks to grow in…pigeons usually moult these only 2 or so at a time, but if all were removed via injury they may come in at once, and quicker than in a normal moult. A good diet (standard pigeon feed if available) will help, but no real way to estimate the time that will be needed.

    Good luck with the vet, Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  10. avatar

    One last question:

    The chick has a broken wing, I put a sling on it and immobilized it, but, how long should I keep a sling on the damaged wing?

    Thanks again!

  11. avatar

    Hello Sven, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Healing time varies with age and the extent of the damage done to the bone. I’ve had adult pigeons and relatives (various doves) heal in 2-3 weeks, but actual details are best decided by a vet…a doctor can sometimes tell by manually manipulating the wing, without the need for an x-ray.

    Breaks often heal well, I hope this one does, Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  12. avatar


    Thanks again, and congratulations for a well-planned and useful blog!

    In 24 hours I will be putting both pigeons in the same cage.


  13. avatar

    Hello Sven, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks very much for the kind words. Good luck with the birds. You might like to read the article I wrote on diamond doves, which are related to pigeons. If you have an interest in reptiles, fishes, amphibians, invertebrates etc., please check out other articles on our reptile and fish blogs.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  14. avatar

    Hello Sven, Frank Indiviglio here.

    It’s difficult to say how they will get along if kept together…usually pigeons do fine, but you’ll need to watch. Be especially careful that the one with the broken wing does not get pushed about at feeding time.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  15. avatar


    Thanks. They seem to be doing well. The chick started peeping when it saw the adult, and snuggled up to it. The adult doesn’t seem to mind much. It pecked at the chick a couple of times, but thats about it. The chick is eating on its own, and the perforation in its gizzard has (apparently) healed.

    I have pics for you if you’d like to see them, send me an email and I’ll send them to ya.


    Thanks again!


  16. avatar

    Hello Sven, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the post, I’m very happy that the birds are getting along and all seems to be working out.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  17. avatar

    The chick passed away two days ago, sadly. I am not sure exactly why, but when I pulled it out of the cage it was barely breathing, and then it simply passed out and stopped breathing while in my hand. The wounds had all healed and closed, and no infection was visible. His body, however was very cold. I am not sure what killed him, but I have to tell you I was really distraught over the whole thing. The other pigeon is doing fine it seems.

    Thank you for all your support.


  18. avatar

    Hello Sven, Frank Indiviglio here.

    It’s sad to lose a bird of course but you certainly did all that was possible. Even in zoos and rehab centers, the majority of injured wild birds brought in for treatment, especially chicks, do not survive. They are very delicate, and internal injuries and the effects of stress are difficult to access but nearly always a factor.

    Good luck with the other pigeon…being an adult, its chances for a recovery are greater.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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