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Passenger Pigeon

Photo Credit: Ray Metzler
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Ectopistes migratorius
 
OTHER NAMES: Pigeon of passage, wild pigeon.
 
DESCRIPTION: The passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, was a small bird that weighed six to eight ounces. The body was somewhat slender and about 16 inches long with a wing span of 16 to 18 inches. The passenger pigeon exhibited a long slender tail, which along with the mourning dove (Zenaida macoura), was the only dove or pigeon in North America to have a long pointed tail. The passenger pigeon’s body shape and coloration were very similar to the mourning dove.   The passenger pigeon was slightly larger than a mourning dove and exhibited an iridescent patch on the side of its neck. A mourning dove has black spots on its neck. At a distance, trained ornithologists had difficulty in distinguishing between the two species. There were no sub-species or races of the passenger pigeon identified before it became extinct.
 
DISTRIBUTION: Ectopistes migratorius is an extinct species. The “pigeon of passage” was abundant in Alabama in winter but there were no official records of it nesting in Alabama. However, scientists believe it probably nested in state since there are records indicating it nested in Mississippi and Georgia. Before extinction the passenger pigeon inhabited most of the forested regions of the eastern United States.   The passenger pigeon began to disappear from Alabama and other parts of its range in about 1880. The last wild pigeon seen in Alabama was a small flock observed in 1909 in Henry County along the Choctawhatchee River. The last known passenger pigeon in the world died in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in 1914.
 
HABITAT: The passenger pigeon was a hardwood forest species, more specifically climax deciduous forest, particularly mast-bearing species.
 
FEEDING HABITS: Since the passenger pigeon became extinct early on, few if any extensive scientific food habit studies were conducted before extinction.  However, we may infer what foods were used by noting the habitats frequented by the passenger pigeon flocks. These inferences point to hard mast foods, such as acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts, fruit, berries, and agricultural grains.
 
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird species in North America. Ornithologists such as Wilson and Audubon estimated the population to be between three to five billion birds. If their estimate was close then 30-40 percent of the total bird population of North America was made up of passenger pigeons.
 
Passenger pigeons were a year-round gregarious bird whether roosting, nesting, or migrating. In fact, their existence literally depended on its innate flocking during its entire life cycle.
 
Passenger pigeons nested in large colonies, the sizes of which were staggering. Some colonies were over a hundred miles long and nearly ten miles wide, covering an area of over 800 square miles.   Almost every tree in the colony contained nests and as many as ninety nests would be erected in a single tree. Unlike most other doves and pigeons of North America which laid two or more eggs per nest, passenger pigeons laid only one egg per nest.
 
Passenger pigeon migrations in fall and winter were very large and dense, so dense that the sun and sky would be obscured by the mass of wings and bodies.   Some flocks were three to four miles long and one mile wide. Ornithologist Wilson estimated that one flock he observed was calculated to contain 2.2 billion birds. 
 
Roosts were smaller than nesting colonies but were still Herculean in size. One roost in Kentucky, as reported by Ornithologist Audubon, encompassed an area of nearly one hundred and twenty square miles.
 
Detailed information on nest building, incubation, brooding, nesting, and fledging survival and other facets of the life history of passenger pigeons will remain forever hidden. One thing we do know is that the reproductive potential of the passenger pigeon was not adequate to sustain its losses. We will never know precisely why the passenger pigeon became extinct, but we may suppose that there were a multiplicity of causes. Encroaching civilization with the westward and southern movement of modern man, accompanied by his axe and plow, laid waste to millions of acres of prime habitat, destroying prime feeding areas, nesting habitat, and roosting sites.
 
The predominant mast species of eastern deciduous forest, the American chestnut, “Castenia dentata” was also suffering a similar fate as the passenger pigeon, in that the chestnut blight, a fungal disease brought into North American on Asiatic chestnuts, was rapidly destroying American chestnut forests. Thus the most plentiful, widespread and reliable mast food source was eliminated through-out the range of the passenger pigeon.
 
Commercial exploitation of the passenger pigeon as a source of cheap food was also full tilt as populations in eastern cities of the United States were expanding rapidly. Millions of pounds of salted passenger pigeons were shipped by railcar to metropolitan cities each year. Commercial hunters had ingeniously figured out numerous ways to slaughter huge numbers of birds in a very short time.
 
Whatever the cause, the millions upon millions of passenger pigeons were gone in less than a quarter of a century. We might say the passenger pigeon population imploded.
 
REFERENCES:
 
Thomas A. Imhoffm T. A. 1876, Alabama Birds. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL. p. 225.
 
Madson, J. 1978. The Mourning Dove. Winchester Press, East Alton, IL. 114 pp.
 
Schorger, A.W. 1955. The Passenger Pigeon. University of Oklahoma Press. 424 pp.
 
Reeves, H.M. and R.E. McCabe 1993 (2) pp 20-22. Historical Prospective in Ecology and Management of the Mourning Dove. T.S. Baskett, Mark W. Sayre, R.E. Tomlinson, and Ralph E. Mirarchi. A Wildlife Mgt. Inst. Book. Stockpile Books, Harrisburg, PA. USA.
AUTHOR: Thagard Colvin, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, September 2006

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