The passenger pigeon is an eternal reproach to mankind. An example of the fact that any species can be destroyed, no matter how numerous it may be. Now more is known about the wanderers than during their lifetime, but this information is incomplete and often based on the study of stuffed animals, bones, records and sketches of eyewitnesses. Much of the information comes from genetic research.
Origin of the species and description
Panel Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) ) — the only representative of the monotypic genus Ectopistes from the pigeon family. The Latin name, given by Linnaeus in 1758, reflects his nature and in translation means “migratory wanderer”, or “nomad”.
It is endemic to North America. As genetic studies have shown, its living closest relatives from the genus Patagioenas are found only in the New World. A more distant and species-diverse relative of representatives of true pigeons and cuckoo turtledoves inhabits southeast Asia.
Video: Passenger pigeon
According to one group of researchers, it was from here that the ancestors of the passenger pigeon once set off in search of new lands, either through the Berengian land or directly across the Pacific Ocean. Fossils indicate that the species already lived in various states of the North American continent approximately 100,000 years ago.
According to other scientists, family ties with East Asian pigeons are more distant. The ancestors of the New World pigeons must be sought in the Neotropics, that is, the biogeographic region that unites South and Central America and the adjacent islands. However, both carried out genetic analyzes on museum material and the results obtained cannot be considered particularly accurate.
Appearance and features
Wanderer was adapted for long high-speed flights, this is indicated by everything in the structure of his body: a small head, streamlined contours of the figure, long sharp wings and a tail that makes up more than half of the body. Two particularly long feathers in the center of the tail emphasize the elongated shape of this bird, sharpened for flight.
The species is characterized by sexual dimorphism. The length of an adult male was about 40 cm, weight up to 340 g. The wing of the male was 196 – 215 mm long, the tail & # 8212; 175 – 210 mm. Coloration can now be judged by dusty stuffed animals and drawings made from them or from memory. Only one artist is known for certain, for whom live pigeons posed — Charles Knight.
The even gray feathers of the head turned into iridescent ones on the neck, like those of our sizar. Depending on the lighting, they cast purple, bronze, golden green. The bluish-gray coloration of the back with an olive tint smoothly flowed onto the coverts of the second order. Some coverts ended in a dark spot, giving the wings a variegation.
The flight feathers of the first order were contrasting dark and the two central tail feathers had the same color. The rest of the tail feathers were white and gradually shortened from the center to its edges. Judging by the images, the tail of this dove would be more suitable for a bird of paradise. The apricot color of the throat and chest, gradually turning pale, turned into white on the belly and undertail. A black beak, crimson red eyes and bright red paws completed the picture.
The female was slightly smaller, no more than 40 cm, and looked less defiant. Mainly because of the brownish-gray color of the breast and throat. It was also distinguished by more colorful wings, flight feathers with a reddish border on the outside, a relatively short tail, a bluish (rather than red) ring around the eye. Juveniles, in general, resembled adult females, differing in the complete absence of overflow on the neck, dark brownish coloration of the head and chest. Sexual differences appeared in the second year of life.
Where did the passenger pigeon live?
The range of the passenger pigeon during the last stage of the existence of the species practically coincided with the distribution area of deciduous forests occupying the central and eastern regions of North America from southern Canada to Mexico. Pigeon flocks were unevenly distributed: they mostly migrated throughout the territory in search of food, and settled down stably only for the breeding season.
Nesting areas were limited to Wisconsin, Michigan, New York in the north, and Kentucky and Pennsylvania in the south. Individual nomadic flocks were noted along the chain of rocky mountains, but mostly the western forests were left at the disposal of the wanderers' rival – striped-tailed pigeons. In cold winters, passenger pigeons could fly as far south as Cuba and Bermuda.
Interesting fact: The coloration of these pigeons is very stable, judging by the stuffed animals. Among hundreds of specimens, a single atypical one was found. The female from the Museum of Natural History in Tring (England) has a brownish top, a white bottom, and first-order white flight feathers. There is a suspicion that the scarecrow was simply in the sun for a long time.
Huge flocks demanded appropriate territories for placement. Ecological preferences during migrations and nesting were determined by the availability of shelters and food resources. Such conditions provided them with extensive oak and beech forests, and in residential areas & # 8212; fields with ripe crops.
Now you know where the passenger pigeon lived. Let's see what he ate.
What did the passenger pigeon eat?
The menu of the bird depended on the season and was determined by the food that was in abundance.
In spring and summer, small invertebrates (worms, snails, caterpillars) and soft fruits of forest trees and herbs served as the main food:
- late and Pennsylvanian bird cherry;
- red mulberry;
- Canadian turf;
- river grape;
- local blueberries;
- western raspberries and blackberries;
By autumn, when the nuts and acorns were ripe, the pigeons set off on their search. Rich harvests occurred irregularly and in different places, so that from year to year the pigeons combed the forests, changing routes and stopping at abundant sources of food. They either flew as a whole flock, or sent individual birds for reconnaissance, which made daytime overflights of the area, moving up to 130 or even 160 km from the place of overnight stay.
Mostly they went for food:
- acorns of 4 species of oak, mostly white, which was much more widespread in those days;
- fruits of the toothed chestnut, not yet destroyed by an epidemic of a fungal disease introduced at the beginning of the 20th century;
- lionfish of maples and ash trees;
- cultivated cereals, buckwheat, corn.
They fed on this all winter and fed the chicks in the spring, using what did not have time to germinate. Birds dug up food among the fallen leaves and snow, plucked it from trees, and acorns could swallow whole thanks to an extensible pharynx and the ability to open their beak wide. The wanderer's goiter was distinguished by its exceptional capacity. It was estimated that 28 nuts or 17 acorns could fit in it, the bird consumed up to 100 g of acorns per day. Having quickly swallowed, the pigeons sat on the trees and without haste were engaged in the digestion of the prey.
Peculiarities of character and lifestyle
Passenger pigeons were nomadic birds. All the time free from incubation and feeding offspring, they flew in search of food from place to place. With the onset of cold weather, they shifted to the south of the range. Individual flocks numbered billions of birds and looked like winding ribbons up to 500 km long and 1.5 km wide. It seemed to the observers that there was no end to them. The flight altitude varied from 1 to 400 m depending on the wind strength. The average speed of an adult pigeon on such flights was about 100 km/h.
In flight, the dove made quick and short flaps of its wings, which became more frequent before landing. And if in the air he was dexterous and easily maneuvered even in a dense forest, then he walked on the ground with clumsy short steps. The presence of the pack could be recognized from miles away. The birds made loud, sharp, non-melodious cries. The situation demanded that – in a huge close crowd, everyone tried to shout down the other. There were almost no fights – in conflict situations, the birds were content with threatening each other with spread wings and dispersed.
Interesting fact: Recordings of pigeon calls made by the American ornithologist Wallis Craig in 1911 have been preserved. The scientist recorded the last representatives of the species living in captivity. Various chirping and grumbling signals served to attract attention, cooing invited mating, a special melody was played by a dove on the nest.
Wanderers chose large areas for spending the night. Particularly large flocks could occupy up to 26,000 hectares, while the birds sat in terrible crowding, squeezing each other. The parking time depended on food supplies, weather, conditions. Locations may change from year to year. The lifespan of free pigeons has remained unknown. In captivity, they could live for at least 15 years, and the most recent representative of the species, the dove Marta, lived for 29 years.
Social structure and reproduction
Wanderers are characterized by communal nesting. From the beginning of March, flocks began to converge on nesting areas. By the end of the month, huge colonies arose. One of the last, noted in 1871 in the forest of Wisconsin, occupied 220,000 hectares, 136 million individuals lived in it and was so crowded that there were an average of about 500 nests per tree. But usually the colonies were limited to an area from 50 to a thousand hectares. Nesting lasted from one to one and a half months.
The process of courtship of the male for the female preceded mating. It took place in the canopy of the branches and included gentle cooing and spreading of the tail and wings, with which the male drew on the surface. The ritual ended with the female kissing the male, exactly as the Sisari do. It remains unknown how many times during the season they hatched chicks. Most likely only one. For several days, the newlyweds built a nest from branches in the form of a shallow bowl about 15 cm in diameter. The egg was usually one, white, 40 x 34 mm. Both parents hatched it in turn, the chick hatched in 12 – 14 days.
The chick is a typical child of nesting birds; it was born blind and helpless, at first it fed on the goiter milk of its parents. After 3 – 6 days, he was transferred to adult food, and after 13 – 15 they stopped feeding at all. The chick, already fully feathered, gained independence. The whole process took about a month. A year later, if he managed to survive, the youngster built the nest himself.
The Passenger Pigeon's Natural Enemies
Doves, no matter what species they belong to, there are always many enemies. The dove is a large, tasty and unprotected bird.
On the ground and in the crowns of trees, they were hunted by predators of all sizes and different systematic affiliation:
- nosy mustelids (American mink, marten, long-tailed weasel;
- coon raccoon;
- red lynx;
- wolf and American fox;
- black bear;
Chicks were especially vulnerable, which were caught on the nests and during the flight period. Eagles, falcons and hawks chased adult birds in the air, and owls got them at night. Found in passenger pigeons and parasites – posthumously, of course. These are a pair of louse species that were thought to have died out along with the host. But then one of them was found on another kind of pigeon. This is a little comforting.
The most dangerous enemy turned out to be a man to whom the wanderers owe their disappearance. The Indians have long used pigeons for food, but with their primitive hunting methods, they could not cause significant damage to them. With the beginning of the development of the American forest by Europeans, pigeon hunting took on a large scale. They were killed not only for food, but for the sake of feathers and sport hunting, to feed pigs, and most importantly, for sale. Many hunting methods were developed, but they all boiled down to one thing: “How to catch or kill more.”
For example, up to 3,500 pigeons could fly into special tunnel networks at a time. For the sake of capturing young especially tasty birds, nesting sites were destroyed, cutting down and burning trees. In addition, they were simply destroyed as agricultural pests. Pigeons were especially harmed by deforestation in nesting areas.
Population and species status
The status of the species is extinct. The passenger pigeon was the most numerous bird on the North American continent. The number of the species was not constant and varied greatly depending on the yield of seeds and fruits, climatic conditions. During its heyday, it reached 3-5 billion.
The process of extinction will be most clearly shown by the chronicle of the last years of the species' life:
- 1850s. The dove is becoming rarer in the eastern states, although the population is still in the millions. An eyewitness to the barbarian hunt makes a prophetic statement that by the end of the century, pigeons will remain only in museums. In 1857 bird protection bill proposed in Ohio but rejected;
- 1870s. Noticeable drop in numbers. Large nesting sites remained only near the Great Lakes. Conservationists protest against sports shooting;
- 1878 The last large nesting site near Petoskey, Michigan, is systematically destroyed for five months: 50,000 birds every day. Beginning of campaigns to protect the wanderer;
- 1880s. The nests became scattered. Birds abandon nests in case of danger;
- 1897 Bills passed to prohibit hunting in Michigan and Pennsylvania;
- 1890s. In the first years of the decade, small flocks are noted in places. The killings continue. By the middle of the period, pigeons practically disappear in nature. Separate reports of a meeting with them still appear at the beginning of the 20th century;
- 1910. The last representative of the species, Martha the dove, remains alive in the Cincinnati Zoo;
- 1914, 1 September, 13:00 by local time. The passenger pigeon species has ceased to exist.
Interesting fact: Martha has a monument, and her last shelter in Cincinnati, called the Passenger Pigeon Memorial Cabin, has the status of a historical monument in the United States. There is a lifetime portrait of her by Charles Knight. Paintings, books, songs and poems are dedicated to her, including those written on the centenary of her death.
The Passenger Pigeon is listed as extinct on the International Red List and the IUCN Red Lists of Threatened Species. There is only one answer to all the listed protection measures – No. Does that mean it's over for good? Cloning using the genome from stuffed animals and other organic remains is impossible in this case due to the destruction of chromosomes during storage. In recent years, the American geneticist George Church proposed a new idea: to reconstruct the genome from fragments and introduce it into the sex cells of the Sisars. So that they give birth and feed the newly-minted “phoenix”. But all this is still at the stage of theory.
The passenger pigeon is always cited as an example of man's barbaric attitude towards his fellows. But the reasons for the extinction of a species often lie in the features of its biology. In captivity, wanderers showed poor reproduction, poor viability of chicks, and susceptibility to disease. If this was also characteristic of wild pigeons, then it becomes clear that only their incredible numbers saved them. Mass destruction could cause a decrease in the population below a critical level, after which the process of extinction became irreversible.