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NATURAL HISTORY

PASSENGER PIGEON } Ectopistes migratorius
FAMILY: Columbidae

DESCRIPTION: The passenger pigeon was much larger than the somewhat similarly plumed mourning dove. Adapted for speed and maneuverability in flight, it had a small head and neck; long tail; long, broad and pointed wings; and particularly large breast muscles that enabled it to fly for long distances. It was about 15-16 inches long — with its tail accounting for much of its length — and weighed about 9-12 ounces. This bird had red eyes, a black bill and red feet. The male had a red breast and blue-gray head, body and wings, while the female had a more brownish body and its lower throat and breast were a buff-gray that developed into white on the belly.

HABITAT: The passenger pigeon’s primary habitat was in eastern deciduous forests, with strong beeches and oak trees most fitted for nesting and roosting. The pigeon preferred to winter in large swamps, particularly those with alder trees; if swamps were not available, forested areas, particularly with pine trees, were favored roosting sites.

RANGE: The passenger pigeon was found across most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. It originally bred from the southern parts of eastern and central Canada south to eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Georgia, but the primary breeding range was in southern Ontario and the Great Lakes states south through states north of the Appalachian Mountains.

MIGRATION: The pigeon most commonly wintered from Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina south to Texas, the Gulf Coast and northern Florida; however, flocks occasionally wintered as far north as southern Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and some sightings occurred as far away as Bermuda, Cuba and Mexico.

BREEDING: Courtship took place at nesting colonies, typically during late March, April or May. The colonies — known as "cities" — were immense, ranging from 120 to thousands of acres in size, often long and narrow in shape. Unlike courtship displays of other pigeons, this bird's display took place on a branch or other perch; the male made a "keck" call while near a female, gripped his perch tightly, and vigorously flapped his wings; he then pressed against the female with his head held high. Each female laid a single egg. Pairs of passenger pigeons were monogamous while nesting.

LIFE CYCLE: In captivity, a passenger pigeon was capable of living at least 15 years; Martha, the last known living passenger pigeon, was at least 17 and possibly as old as 29 when she died. However, it is unknown how long a wild pigeon lived.

FEEDING: In the fall, winter and spring, this bird mainly ate beechnuts, acorns and chestnuts. During the summer it ate mainly berries and berries and softer fruits such as the fruit of dogwoods. It also ate earthworms, caterpillars and snails, particularly while breeding — in addition to cultivated grains, particularly buckwheat, when it found them. The species was particularly fond of salt, which it ingested either from brackish springs or salty soil. The bird foraged in flocks of tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals that overturned leaves, dirt, and snow with their bills in a frantic search for nuts.

THREATS: The main threats to the passenger pigeon were habitat destruction and hunting.

POPULATION TREND: This bird numbered an estimated 4 million in the 19th century; the last known bird — a captive pigeon named Martha — died on September 1,1914.

 

Passenger pigeon photo by Enno Meyer