The passenger pigeon, belonging to the genus Ectopistes, is an extinct bird endemic to North America. Once it was the most abundant bird in its native region. Researchers believe that they once accounted for 25 to 40 percent of the total land-bird population in the US.
When European settlers arrived in North America, there were 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons in the United States. Jacques Cartier, the French explorer, was the first European to report this species. He saw them in large numbers on the Prince Edward Island during his first voyage in the year 1534. Their population sharply dropped in early 20th century. Once, their population was second only to Rocky Mountain locust.
|Scientific name||Ectopistes migratorius|
|Other names||Wild Pigeon, blue pigeon, merne rouck pigeon, wandering long-tailed dove, and wood pigeon.|
|Size (including tail)||Male – 38 to 41 cms in lengthFemale – 38 to 40 cms in length|
|Tail length||18 to 20 cms|
|Weight||260 to 340 grams|
|Lifespan||15 to 17 years in the wild|
|Closest relatives||American Patagioenas pigeons (including western North America’s band-tailed pigeon).|
|Predators||American minks, weasels, American martens, raccoons, owls, hawks, eagles, wolves, bobcats, foxes, mountain lions and bears.|
In 1766, the passenger pigeon was first described as Columba migratoria by Carl Linnaeus. William John Swainson, in 1827, moved this species to the newly erected monotypic genus Ectopistes because of their sexual dimorphism, larger size, length of the tail and wings and lack of facial features. The passenger pigeon had no known subspecies.
Structurally, they were greatly adapted for speed and maneuverability in flight. They had a small head; long, broad and pointed wings; and long and tapering tail. Adult males had bluish-gray head and hindneck; pale gray upper back and wings; blackish-brown secondaries and primaries with a narrow white edge; dark blue-gray back and rump; and white under-tail with few black spots. Adult females had paler and browner upperparts compared to adult males. They had grayish-brown forehead and crown; and their wings had more spots than that of males. The back, tail and wing were similar to the males. The plumage of the juveniles was similar to that of the females, but they did not have spots on the wings. Their head, neck and breast were darker brownish gray. The secondaries were brownish-black with pale edges and primaries were edged with a rufous-brown.
Historical data denotes that their call was harsh, unmusical, loud and deafening. They produced harsh sounds like ‘keck,’ “kee-kee-kee-kee,’ ‘tete! tete! tete!’ and ‘keeho’ for different purposes. Females were quieter and infrequent than males.
Ectopistes migratorius modern range included central and eastern parts of Canada and the United States (south to Oklahoma, Mississippi, Georgia and eastern Kansas). They spent the winter months in Tennessee, North Carolina and Arkansas, south to Texas, northern Florida and the Gulf Coast to as far as Connecticut and Pennsylvania. During severe winter, the flocks could be seen in places like Cuba, Mexico, Bermuda and the western states of United States. There are also accidental records of this species in France, Ireland and Scotland.
This species preferred to dwell in eastern deciduous forests. They liked to stay near large swamps, mainly with alder trees, in winter. They also favored Pine and American chestnut trees as roosting place.
Ecology and Behavior
Passenger Pigeon, considered as one of the most social land birds, were adept to communal breeding. They lived in colonies that stretched over hundreds of square miles with larger trees – each holding up to fifty to hundred nests. They did not have site preferences and each year they choose different nesting sites.
They were magnificent flyers and could register up to 100 km/h speed. A flying flock could reach as high as 400 meters from the ground. At roosting places, the flocks packed so densely on tree branches that even the thick ones broke at times under their collective weight. They are not known to fight with each other.
Their diet altered from season to season. During winter, fall and spring, their diet included acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts. In summer, they mainly fed on grapes, blueberries, cherries, pokeberries, mulberries as well as the fruit of dogwoods. During mating season, they also ate caterpillars, snails and earthworms. Salt (ingested either from salty soil and brackish springs) was an integral part of their diet.
Ectopistes migratorius was a colonial and social bird known for communal roosting and breeding. They used to form their breeding grounds, known as cities, after April-May. The cities were generally long and narrow – could be as long as thousands of hectors in size. They took 2-4 days to make their breeding nest. Nests were typically built around 2.0 to 20.5 meters above the ground. Each nest was 15 cms wide; 6 cms high and 2 cms deep. They laid one egg immediately after the nest was built. The egg was incubated for 12-14 days. Both male and female took part in the incubation process. Hatchlings had yellow, hairlike down. They fledged after 19-20 days. The young ones became sexually mature in their first year and could breed in the next spring.
- Canadian meat pie tourtière was once believed to have cooked with the meat of this bird.
- The bird is named after French word ‘passager’ that means ‘to pass by’ in a fleeting manner. In the modern-day French language, the bird is known as Pigeon migrateur or Tourte voyageuse.
- In 1866, one flock in southern Ontario was described as being as long as 500 kilometers long and 1.5 kilometers wide. It took around fourteen hours for the flock to pass. It is believed that the flock had more than 3.5 million birds.
- Their largest nesting area, covering an area of 2200 km2 with around 136000000 individuals, was recorded in central Wisconsin in 1871.
- The early colonists believe that large flights of pigeons bring sickness and ill fortune.
- The extinction of this bird worked as an alarm in the conservation movement. It brought in new laws and practices that precluded many other species from becoming extinct.
Causes of Extinction
This bird was highly vulnerable because of its large flocks and communal breeding. It is believed that their extinction took place largely due to two reasons – deforestation and hunting on a massive scale (primarily because of its meat). The European settlement led to mass deforestation. In the 19th century, pigeon meat was in demand as a cheap food for poor and slaves that resulted in hunting on a huge scale. Their number sharply decreased between 1870 to 1890.
The last recorded wild specimen was killed in Pike County, Ohio, in late March 1900, when the bird was killed with a BB gun by Press Clay Southworth.
In 1857, the Ohio State Legislature introduced a bill seeking the protection for Passenger pigeon. Several other states, like Pennsylvania and Michigan, brought forth bills to protect this species, but they appeared to be more of a customary introduction as they were weakly enforced. Successful breeding was not noticed among small flocks. Breeding attempts in captivity also ended in vain.
Unconfirmed sighting reports of the species being alive came up until 1930s, especially in the first decade of the 20th century. Avian biologist Alexander Wetmore claimed to see a pair near Independence, Kansas, in April 1905.
Scientists are carefully dealing with the de-extinction and reintroduction idea. They have thought of extracting their DNA samples from preserved specimens and use Band-tailed pigeons as surrogate parents.
More than 130 samples of passenger pigeon fossils have been discovered throughout its range. Records suggest that this species was found during the Pleistocene epoch, when their native range included California as well as other western states.
Martha – The Last Living Passenger Pigeon
Martha, the last known Ectopistes migratorius specimen (possibly 29 years of age), died on 1st September, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was named after United States’ first First Lady Martha Washington. From 1920s to early 1950s, Martha she was displayed in the Bird Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington DC.