Return to the main Miscellaneous and archives page.

The Passenger Pigeon
Recollection of the Passenger Pigeon In Captivity
Wallace Graig

Bird Lore March-April 1913;   

Recollection of the Passenger Pigeon in Captivity

Adult Male Adult Male Passenger Pigeon

The Passenger Pigeon was easily kept in captivity. All species of Pigeon take more or less well to cage-life, but the Passenger Pigeon throve and bred much more readily than some of the others. My own observations of it at close range were due to the privilege of studying in the pigeonry maintained by the late Prof. C. 0. Whitman. In Chicago and in Woods Hole, Professor Whitman kept Passenger Pigeons in pens of modest dimensions, yet they bred, and would probably have maintained their numbers permanently, had it not been for in-breeding, the flock being all descended from one pair. They took readily to the nest-boxes, nesting materials, and all other artificial arrangements of the aviary. They did not become exceedingly tame, did not eat out of one's hand (so far as I saw); but, if effort had been made to tame them to this degree, who knows but it might have been successful? It is a great pity that attempts were not made earlier to breed these birds in confinement, for it is certain that the species could have been thus saved from extinction.
As an aviary bird, it would have been a favorite, on account of its beauty and its marked individuality. Constant close association with a bird in the aviary gives one a kind of intimate acquaintance with it which can seldom if ever, be gained by observation of wild birds. And for such study at close range the Passenger Pigeon was, and would ever have continued to be, a most interesting subject, for its strongly marked character appeared in every minute detail of its habits, postures, gestures, and voice.
In another place, I have given a somewhat technical and detailed description of certain habits observed in the captive Ectopistes migratorius. The great account of this species, that by Professor Whitman, remains still to be published in the monograph on Pigeons now being edited by Doctor Riddle. Here, in BIRD-LORE, I shall try to portray my clearest recollections of this magnificent bird; I shall add a few facts to those mentioned elsewhere; but I shall endeavor chiefly to convey to the minds of others something of the vivid impression made upon the minds of those who observed the Passenger Pigeon in life.The distinctive character of the species appeared, as has been said before, in every detail of its postures and movements. Such individuality is in great part impossible to describe, though it is felt unmistakably by everyone who has lived with the birds. Better than any mere description are the accompanying photographs. In them one can see that, with its long, pointed tail, its graceful, curved neck and head, and its trim, strong body and wings, the Passenger Pigeon was truly elegant. The Ring-Dove, by contrast, seems chubby in form and gross in movement. The Passenger was quick, active, vigorous, and graceful. The elegance of form and posture which shows in these photographs was matched by an elegance of motion in every act of the birds while on the perch or on the wing.

A Bird of Flight

The Passenger was preeminently a bird of flight. Accordingly, its movements on the ground were a little awkward, in contrast to its grace when on the perch or in the air. It indulged often in a grand wing exercise, standing on a high perch and flapping its wings as if flying, now slowly, now power-fully, now leaving the perch to fly up and down the aviary, returning to the perch and again commencing the wing exercise, looking about for somewhere else to fly to. This species thus loved to fly more than did most of the other Pigeons. And though not afraid of men nor properly to be called "wild," it seemed sometimes to wish to escape from the pen and fly into the very sky.
Extreme powers of flight and extreme gregariousness seem to be the two fundamental traits in the peculiar habits of this species. But as to the latter trait, I did not notice that in the aviary the Passenger Pigeons flocked together more than the others, for all Pigeons are gregarious. The number of Passenger Pigeons being small, there was little opportunity for them to show their extreme flocking tendency. The old accounts tell us that in the great roosts some Pigeons alighted on the backs of those who had found perches; but this was probably only temporary and for lack of room, and I am sure the one alighted on must have resented it with angry voice and a struggle to throw the other off his back.

Vocal Pigeons

The noise made by the Pigeons in their great breeding colonies, as we are told by those who witnessed them, was deafening. Now, the Passenger Pigeon's voice was very different from the voice of any other Pigeon. It had little of the soft, cooing notes so familiar in all sorts of Doves, but showed extreme development of the hard, unmusical notes which in most Doves are subordinate to the coo. This peculiarity seems to have been an adaptation to life in such extremely populous and hence noisy communities, where soft notes could scarcely be heard, and a bird had literally to scream in order to gain a hearing.
Let us examine the bird's various notes in more detail, for they are interesting. The most characteristic utterance of the species was a voluble stream of 'talking,' which ever varied with the mood of the bird, now rising into a loud, shrill scolding, now sinking into a soft, low clucking, and sometimes diminishing into single clucks. In addition to this voluble flow of talk, the male sometimes shouted one or two single, emphatic notes sounding like a loud keck, keck. All these sounds were full of meaning and expression. And their expressiveness was greatly enhanced by the bird's movements. With the loud notes, as used in anger, he stood at full height, in his majestic way, and impressed the enemy by his bold appearance; and sometimes each loud keck was accompanied, quick as lightning, by a stroke of both wings, which struck the enemy if he was near enough, and powerfully frightened him if he was at a distance. On the other hand, with the soft, clucking notes, which expressed gentler feelings, even to devotion, the talking bird sidled along the perch to the bird to whom he was talking, and sometimes put his neck over her in a way which clearly showed his tender emotion. The Passenger was very quick and nimble in moving sideways along a perch, and this movement was so characteristic of his courting as to distinguish it from the courting of any other species.
Though all this chattering and kecking was so very expressive, it was never sweetly musical. The loud notes were strident, and even the faint notes were hard. The male, when courting, gave also a coo, which was musical, but so weak and faint that in my early memoranda I put it down simply as "the weak note;" and this little coo, sounding more like keeho, was usually given after the clucking or kecking notes, as a subordinate appendage to them. The species gave also a nest-call, as do the other Pigeons; but this, like the coo, was weak and inconspicuous compared with the strong and expressive notes described above.
The female of this, as of all other Pigeons, was more quiet than the male in both voice and movement, and distinguishable from him even when motion-less by a characteristic shyness in her attitude, especially in the pose of her head. So distinct was this difference between the sexes that, in looking at the accompanying photographs (which came to BIRD-LORE without data as to sex), I have ventured to state that four of the figures are of male birds and one is an excellent illustration of the female. I have not hazarded a guess as to the sex of the other four adult figures, for they are in postures less distinctive of sex. (In the attitude of alarm, especially, the male and female become very much alike.)

Courting and Nesting

pigeon nest

The courting behavior of this species, as is evident from what has been said about voice and gestures, was very different from the courting behavior of other Pigeons and Doves. Instead of pirouetting before the female, or bowing to her, or running and jumping after her on the ground, the Passenger Pigeon sidled up to her on the perch, and pressed her very close; and if she moved a little away from him he sidled up to her again and tried to put his neck over her.
The male was very jealous of his mate. And when they had a nest he was a most truculent fellow, attacking any other bird that came into the vicinity. The scenes which resulted were often most amusing. I once saw a male Passenger Pigeon go around the edges of the pen and oust every Pigeon that was sitting alone, mostly Band-tailed Pigeons and Cushats; but he did not attack the dozen or so that were all sitting on one perch. He was not really a good fighter: he made a bold attack, but if the attacked one showed fight, Ectopistes generally retreated.
The defense of the nest was accompanied, as may be imagined, by a lively chatter of scolding and kecking. The Passenger was one of the most garrulous of all the Pigeons in the great aviary. This was naturally connected with the fact of his having chattering notes instead of cooing ones. For a coo is more or less formal, and it cannot be uttered in the midst of all sorts of activity. But the chatter of the Passenger Pigeon was heard on all sorts of occasions, and accompanied nearly everything he did. If he picked up a straw and carried it to the nest, he talked about it while he was searching on the ground for straws, clucked a few times as he flew up, and chattered to his mate as he gave the straw to her.
Baby Passenger Pigeon
I regret to say that I can give no account of the later stages in the breeding of this bird, the hatching and rearing of young. For in the year 1903, when I began to study this species, the birds had already lost the power to hatch and rear young. This much may be said, however, that the species continued vociferous throughout a long breeding season, and in some degree throughout the year. In August, when beginning to molt, it of course became more quiet, losing especially the feeble coo and the nest-call. The grand wing exercise also became reduced, for this performance seems to have been not merely a muscular exercise but also a display. Now, some species of Pigeon when they lose their coo, become almost silent. Not so Ectopistes. For the kecking and scolding and chattering continued, though with not quite the same vehemence as in the breeding season, throughout the autumn and winter. This again goes to show, as we have said, that the Passenger was one of the most garrulous of Pigeons, and would have made one of the most interesting of aviary Pets.

proceed on The Last One... E. H. Forbush

return to previous article