Ectopistes migratorius


Kingdom Animalia

A pair of Passenger Pigeons, watercolour by John James Audubon (1785-1851). This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, Canada, the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

Phylum Chordata
Class Aves
Order Columbiformes
Family Columbidae
Authority (Linnaeus, 1766)  
English Name Passenger Pigeon, Wild Pigeon
Danish Name Vandredue
Dutch Name Trekduif
Finnish Name Muuttokyyhky
French Name Pigeon Migrateur, Colombe Voyageuse, Tourte
German Name Wandertaube
Icelandic Name Flökkudúfa
Italian Name Piccione Migratore
Polish Name Golab Wedrowny
Spanish Name Paloma Migratoria
Swedish Name Vandringsduva
Synonyms Columba migratoria Linnaeus, 1766; Columba canadensis Linnaeus, 1766; Ectopistes migratoria Swainson, 1827
Comments In the 18th century, the Passenger Pigeon in Europe was known to the French as "tourtre" but in New France, the North American bird was called "tourte". In modern French, the bird is known as the pigeon migrateur. In Algonquian languages, it was called amimi by the Lenape and omiimii by the Ojibwe.
Characteristics The male passenger pigeon's head is slaty blue with some black blotches around the eyes. The back of its neck is iridescent bronze, green or purple depending to the light. Dorsally it is tinged slate-grey with olive brown, while its lower back and rump are greyish blue becoming greyish brown on the upper tail coverts. Two central tail feathers are brownish grey and the others white. The wing coverts are brownish grey with irregular blackish markings. The primaries and secondaries are much darker greyish brown. The secondaries are edged with white. The male's throat and breast are coloured pale cinnamon rufous, becoming paler on the lower breast while merging to the white on its abdomen. The under tail coverts are white too. The bill is black. The eye's iris is coloured red and it has a naked orbital purplish flesh coloured ring. The legs and feet are red. The female is similar to the male, but its colour is much duller and the tail is considerably shorter. The legs and feed are also red, but paler than those of the male. The female's iris is coloured orange red and its has a naked greyish blue orbital ring. Immature passenger pigeons are similar to the adult female, but the scapulars, wing coverts, feathers of the foreneck and breast are tipped with white. This gives the immature passenger pigeon a scaled appearance. Its legs and feet are pinkish brown and the iris is brownish with a narrow ring of carmen. (Fuller 2000)

Photo: Photograph of an adult female passenger pigeon with a characteristic erect pose made by Mr. J.G. Hubbard, who generously contributed it to BIRD-LORE, at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1898, and represent birds in the aviary of Dr. C.O. Whitman. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, Canada, the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

Lifestyle The passenger pigeon lived in huge flocks which made colossal journeys occasioned by the need to find food. Within such a flock each bird or group of birds would exactly follow the movements of those in front. (Fuller 2000)
Range & Habitat The Passenger Pigeon was found in deciduous forests in eastern and central Canada and the USA, occasionally wandering north to British Columbia and northern Canada and south to Mexico and Cuba (Schorger 1955). Its normal habitat was located in the eastern temperate region of North America. (BirdLife International 2004)

Image: map of distrinution of the passenger pigeon, created by Valérie Chansigaud. Red: breeding zone. Orange: wintering zone. This image is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 1.0 License. For more information you can visit: Wikimedia Commons.

Food The passenger pigeon ate acorns, chestnuts, beechnuts, and all kinds of fruit. In addition they also fed themselves with grains and a variety of other cultivated plants. Also insects and worms were favourite. (Fuller  2000)
Reproduction Passenger pigeons bred in large colonies every suitable tree would be occupied. Their nestings were of great size and tended to be long and narrow. A.W. Schorger (1955) considered nestings that were 16 km (10 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) broad as probably fairly realistic. There are however recordings of nestings more than 64 km (40 miles) in length and claims for 160 km (100 miles). Although these huge nesting colonies were almost certainly discontinuous consisting of loosely associated gatherings of flocks. Nests were scrappily made from small twigs. (Fuller 2000)

Audubon made an account of the courtship of passenger pigeons: "The male assumes a pompous demeanour, and follows the female whether on the ground or on the branches, with spread tail and drooping wings, which rubs against the part over which it is moving. The body is elevated, the throat swells, the eyes sparkle. He continues his notes, and now and then rises on the wing, and flies a few yards to approach the fugitive and timorous female...they caress each other by billing...the bill of the one is introduced transversely into that of the other, and both parties alternately disgorge the contents of their crop by repeated efforts." (Fuller 2000)

The passenger pigeon did lay their eggs between March and September with a  peak in April and May. A passenger pigeon pair usually laid a single white coloured egg with average measurements of 38 mm x 27 mm. Incubation took 12 or 13 days and both parents took turn at the nest. The hatched chick was cared for by its parents for about two weeks after which it was left. After a few days the chick left its nests to take itself to the air. (Fuller 2000)

History & Population Fossil records of the passenger pigeon extend back to 100.000 years before present and include western states not part of the recent range (Blockstein 2003). Prehistoric sites in the eastern United States yield only a relatively small number of passenger pigeon bones (Blockstein 2003; Neumann 1985). It is argued that, prior to European contact, the population of passenger pigeons was small due to human-wildlife competition over tree nuts (Neumann 1985).  Its prehistoric population could have been restricted by the human-wildlife competition that restricted the species' access to food (Neumann 1985). Anthropologist Stephen Williams has speculated that pigeon populations rose beginning around 1450–1500 CE, coinciding with a major decline in human populations in the agricultural Mississippian culture that had occupied much of what is now the eastern United States since about 800 CE (Blockstein 2003). The decline may have been caused by a cooling climate during the Little Ice Age (c. 1400–c. 1850). Climate change and abandoned agricultural land may have created forested habitat for a rising population of passenger pigeons. (Blockstein 2003) Other think that European colonization disrupted this competitive network resulting in an increased availability of food for the passenger pigeon what led to emergence of an enormous population size between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (Neumann 1985).

The earliest written record of passenger pigeons appear to be from 1 July 1534 when the French navigator Jacques Cartier saw these birds on Prince Edward Island in nowadays Canada (Fuller 2000). On 12 July 1605, the explorer Samuel de Champlain recorded “countless numbers” along the coast of southern Maine (Blockstein 2003).

Over the 19th century, the species crashed from being one of the most abundant birds in the world to extinction (Schorger 1955). The decline seemed to have reached a critical phase during the 1870s. At the start of this decade huge flocks still existed, but the end only scattered remnants were left. (Fuller 2000)

The last wild bird was a female shot on 24 March 1900 by a 14 year old boy named Press Clay. He shot this bird at his family farm near Sargents, Pike County, Ohio, USA. The stuffed skin of this female is now kept in the museum of the Ohio Historical Centre, Columbus. A few individual passenger pigeons still survived in captivity. Some in Milwaukee (Wisconsin, USA), Chicago (Illinois, USA) and some in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens (Ohio, USA). By 1909, only the Cincinnati birds were left. These surviving birds were a female named Martha and two males of which one was named George. By the of 1910 only the female Martha survived. Martha was found dead on the floor of her cage on Tuesday 1 September 1914 at 13.00h (1.00 p.m.) precisely. Her keepers had just checked a short while previously. Martha, the very last passenger pigeon, is now kept in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (Fuller 2000; Wilcove 1989)

Extinction Causes The extinction of the passenger pigeon was ultimately due to the effects of widespread clearance of its mast food (Bucher 1992), with the proximate causes being Newcastle disease, extensive hunting (Blockstein & Tordoff 1985) and the breakdown of social facilitation (Halliday 1980). It may be assumed that once the population has plummeted to certain levels, the species was doomed even though many individuals remained alive (Fuller 2000). The evolution of the passenger pigeon seems to have occurred in such a way that it could exist only in large flocks (Fuller 2000).
Conservation Attempts The density and abundance of the pigeons were such that few people recognized that there were any risks to the species. Arguments that there was no need for protection generally doomed any proposed legal protection. Some states approved laws prohibiting disturbance at passenger pigeon nesting colonies, but the laws were weakly enforced and were for the most part, too late. The extinction of the passenger pigeon predated any conservation movement in America (Blockstein 2002).
Museum Specimens The Passenger Pigeon is probably the most common extinct bird species in museum collections. More than 1500 skins and skeletons have been preserved. The Natural Museum of Natural History Naturalis (Leiden, Netherlands) has 11 specimens (4 adult males, 2 juvenile males, 3 adult females and 2 juvenile females). Other museums with specimens of the passenger pigeon in its collection are the American Museum of Natural History (New York, NY, USA), Jephson Science Center at Keuka College (Keuka Park, NY, USA), Rosensteinmuseum (Stuttgart, Germany), Vanderbilt Museum (New York, NY, USA). Do you know another museum that has passenger pigeon specimens? Contact this website.


Photo (left above): a passenger pigeon pair in the Rosensteinmuseum in Stuttgart, Germany. Copyright and courtesy by Sordes. All right reserved.

Photo (right above): a male (above) and a female (below) passenger pigeon on display at the Vanderbilt Museum in New York, United States. Photographed by Dante Alighieri in 2005 and released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Photo (left below): a stuffed passenger pigeon, Bird Gallery, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. Photographed by Keith Schengili-Roberts in 2007 and released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Photo (right below): Passenger Pigeon Memorial at Cincinnati Zoo. Photographed on 23 June 2007 by Trisha M. Shears. The copyright holder of this work has release it into the public domain.

Co-extinction The most often cited examples are that of the extinct passenger pigeon and its parasitic louse Columbicola extinctus and Campanulotes defectus. Recently, Columbicola extinctus was rediscovered on band-tailed pigeon and Campanulotes defectus was found to be a likely case of misidentification, it is the existing Campanulotes flavus. (Clayton et al. 1999; Price et al. 2000) However, even though the passenger pigeon lice story has a happy ending (i.e. rediscovery), it is uncertain that other co-extinctions of other parasites, even on passenger pigeon, have not occurred. It is said that the mite Diplaegidia gladiator went extinct along with the passenger pigeon (Koh et al. 2004). 
Relatives The Passenger pigeon was the only member of the genus Ectopistes. The Passenger Pigeon was similar to, but larger than the Mourning Dove (Zenaidura macroura). There was no black spot on the side of the neck as is found in the Mourning Dove, which also lacks the reddish breast.  

Photo: A Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) perched on a tree branch. Photographed by Ken Thomas in Johnston County, North Carolina, USA. The copyright holder of this work has release it into the public domain.


Naturalis - Extinct bird: Ectopistes migratorius (Passenger Pigeon)

The Passenger Pigeon: Bird-Lore 1913.

The Passenger Pigeon: Bird-Lore 1913 – Early Historical Records.

The Passenger Pigeon: Bird-Lore 1913 – Recollections of the Passenger Pigeon in Captivity.

The Passenger Pigeon: Bird-Lore 1913 – The Last Passenger Pigeon.

The Passenger Pigeon Society.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – Extopistes migratorius.

Passenger Pigeon Memorial Page.

Georgia Wildlife Web Site; birds: Ectopistes migratorius.

Extinct Birds Stock Photography.

Global Register of Migratory Species – Ectopistes migratorius.

Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Passenger Pigeon.

Chipper Woods Bird Observatory

EXTINCT In The Wild: North America: Passenger Pigeon.

Birds of Nova Scotia – Passenger Pigeon.

Boreal Forests of the World Bird Species – Passenger Pigeon.

300 Pearls - Museum highlights of natural diversity.

Vándorgalamb – Ectopistes migratorius (Linnaeus, 1766).

References BirdLife International 2004. Ectopistes migratorius. In: IUCN 2004. 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. <>. Downloaded on 15 November 2005.

Blockstein, D. E. 2002. Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). In The Birds of North America, No. 611 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Blockstein, David E. 2003. Passenger Pigeon. In: Encyclopedia of World Environmental History. Pages 6-8. Routledge, London.

Blockstein, D. E. and Tordoff, H. B. (1985) Gone forever: a contemporary look at the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. Am. Birds 39: 845-851.

Bucher, E.H. (1992) The causes of extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. Curr. Ornithol. 9: 1-36.

Clayton, D. H., and R. D. Price. 1999. Taxonomy of New World Columbicola (Phthiraptera: Philopteridae) from the Columbiformes (Aves), with descriptions of five new species. Ann. Entomol. Soc. Am. 92:675–685.

Fuller, E. 2000. Extinct birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Halliday, T. R. (1980) The extintion of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius and its relevance to contemporary conservation. Biol. Conserv. 17: 157-167.

Koh, L.P., Dunn, R.R., Sodhi, N.S., Colwell, R.K., Proctor, H.C., Smith, V.S. 2004. Species Co-Extinctions and the Biodiversity Crisis. Science, vol. 305, no. 5690. pp. 1632-1634. (PDF of support supplement)

Neumann, T.W. 1985. Human-wildlife competition and the passenger pigeon: Population growth from system destabilization. Human Ecology, volume 13, number 4, pages 389-410.

Price, R.D., D. H. Clayton, R. J. Adams, J. (2000) Pigeon lice down under: Taxonomy of Australian Campanulotes (Phthiraptera: Philopteridae), with a description of C. durdeni n.sp. Parasitol. 86(5), p 948-950. American Society of Parasitologists. [Online pdf]

Schorger, A. W. 1955. The Passenger Pigeon. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI.

Wilcove, D. (1989) In memory of Martha and her kind. Audubon 91: 52-55.

Last updated: 11th July 2009.

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