The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter XVIII


Nesting Habits of the Passenger Pigeon

By Eugene Pericles (Dr. Morris Gibbs), from "The Oölogist, 1894."

THERE are hundreds and perhaps thousands of the younger readers of The Oölogist who have never seen a Passenger Pigeon alive. In fact, there are many who have never seen a skin or stuffed specimen, for the species is so rare now that very few of the younger collectors have had an opportunity of shooting a bird. And of the present generation of oölogists, the ones who have secured a set (one egg) are indeed very few.

Many of the older ornithologists can remember when the birds appeared among us in myriads each season, and were mercilessly and inconsiderately trapped and shot whenever and wherever they appeared. I could fill a book with the accounts of their butcheries, and could easily cause astonishment in my readers by telling of the immense flocks which were seen a quarter of a century ago. But wonderful as these tales would appear, they would be as nothing compared to the stories of the earlier writers on birds in America.

. . . Of course we know that the net and gun have been the principal means of destruction, but it is almost fair to assert that even with the net and gun under proper restrictions, the pigeon would still be with us in hordes, both spring and autumn. For many years hunters (butchers) used to shoot the birds regularly at their nesting places, while the netters were also found near at hand.

I have seen many birds taken, by unsportsmanlike netters, for the market during spring migrations, and the published accounts of the destruction by netters is almost beyond belief. Doctor Kirtland states that near Circleville, Ohio, in 1850, there were taken in a single net in one day 1,285 live pigeons.

The Passenger Pigeon was in the habit of crossing the Ohio River by March 1 in the spring migrations, and I have noted the birds several times in Michigan in February. But this was not usually the case, for the birds were not abundant generally before April 1, although no set rule could be laid down regarding their appearance or departure either in spring or fall. They usually came with a mighty rush. Sometimes they did not appear, or, at least, only very sparingly. Their nesting sites would remain the same for years if the birds were unmolested, but they generally had to change every year or two, or as soon as the roost was discovered by the despicable market netter.

Where the mighty numbers went to when they left for the south is not accurately stated, and, of course, this will now never be known, but they were found to continue in flocks in Virginia, Kentucky and even Tennessee.

. . . In the latter part of April or early May the birds began nesting. The nest building beginning as soon as the birds had selected a woods for a rookery, the scene was one of great activity. Birds were flying in every direction in search of twigs for their platform nests, and it did seem that each pair was intent on securing materials at a distance from the structure. Many twigs were dropped in flying, or at the nest, and these were never reclaimed by their bearers, but were often picked up by other birds from another part of the rookery. This peculiarity in so many species of birds in nest building I could never understand.

It takes a pair of pigeons from four to six days to complete a nest, and any basketmaker could do a hundred per cent. better job with the same materials in a couple of hours. In the nest of the pigeon, man could certainly give the birds points for their benefit, for it is one of the most shiftless structures placed in trees that I have met with.

The nest is always composed of slender dead twigs, so far as I have observed, or ever learned from others, and in comparison, though smaller, much resembles some of the heron's structures. In some nests I have observed the materials are so loosely put together that the egg or young bird can be seen through the latticed bottom. In fact, it has been my custom to always thus examine the nests before climbing the tree.

The platform structures vary in diameter from six to twelve inches or more, differing in size according to the length of the sticks, but generally are about nine or ten inches across. An acquaintance of mine had tamed some wild birds, which at last bred regularly in captivity. These birds were well supplied with an abundance of material for their nests and always selected in confinement such as described above, and making a nest about nine inches in diameter.

The breeding places are generally found in oak woods, but the great nesting sites in Michigan were often in timbered lands, I am informed.

The height of the nest varies. It may be as low as six feet or all of sixty-five feet from the ground.

Passenger Pigeons are always gregarious when unmolested, and hundreds of thousands sometimes breed in a neighborhood at one time. It is impossible to say how many nests were the most found in one tree, but there are authenticated instances of a hundred. One man, on whose veracity I rely, informs me that he counted 110 nests in one tree in Emmett County, the lower peninsula. Still this may not be correct, for we all know how easy it is to be deceived in correctly counting and keeping record of even the branches of a tree, and when these limbs are occupied by nests it is certainly doubly difficult, and the tendency to count the same nests twice is increased.

The first nests that I found were in large white oak trees at the edge of a pond. The date was May 17, 1873. The nests were few in number and only one nest in a tree. There was but a single egg in a nest; in fact this is all I have found at any time. The last nest that I have met with south of the forty-third parallel was forty feet up in a tamarack tree in a swamp near the river, June 1, 1884. This nest was alone and would not have been discovered had not the birds flown to it. I have found several instances of pairs of pigeons building isolated nests, and cannot help but think that if all birds had followed this custom that the pigeons would still be with us in vast numbers.

As late as May 9, 1880, my lamented friend, the late C. W. Gunn, found a rookery in a cedar woods in Cheboygan County. These nests contained a single egg each, and he secured about fifty fresh eggs. He did not think their number excessive, as the netters were killing the birds in every direction. But now we can look upon such a trip almost as devastation because the birds are so scarce.

In 1885 I met with the pigeon on Mackinac Island, and have found a few isolated flocks in the Lower Peninsula since then, generally in the fall, but it is safe to say that the birds will never again appear in one-thousandth part of the number of former years.

The places where the birds are nesting are interesting spots to visit. Both parents incubate and the scene is animated as the birds fly about in all directions. However, as the bulk of the birds must fly to quite a distance from an immense rookery to find food, it necessarily follows that the main flocks arrive and depart evening and morning. Then the crush is often terrific and the air is fairly alive with birds. The rush of their thousands of wings makes a mighty noise like the sound of a stiff breeze through the trees.

Often when the large flocks settle at the roost the birds crowd so closely on the slender limbs that they bend down and sometimes crack, and the sound of the dead branches falling from their weight adds an additional likeness to a storm. Sometimes the returning birds will settle on a limb which holds nests and then many eggs are dashed to the ground, and beneath the trees of a rookery one may always find a lot of smashed eggs.

Later in the season young birds may be seen perched all over the trees or on the ground, while big squabs with pin-feathers on are seen in, or rather on, the frail nests, or lying dead or injured on the ground. The frightful destruction that is sure to accompany the nesting of a rookery of Passenger Pigeons is bound to attract the observer's eye. And we cannot but understand how it is that these unprolific birds with many natural enemies, in addition to that unnatural enemy, man, fail to increase. If the pigeon deposited ten to twenty eggs like the quail the unequal battle of equal survival might be kept up. But even this is to be doubted if the bird continues to nest in colonies.

Many ornithological writers have written that the wild pigeon lays two eggs as a rule, but these men were evidently not accurate observers, and probably took their records at second-hand. There is no doubt that two eggs are quite often found in a nest, and sometimes these eggs are both fresh, or else equally advanced in incubation. But these instances, I think, are evidences alone that two females have deposited in the same nest, a supposition which is not improbable with the gregarious species.

That the wild pigeon may rear two or three young in a season, I do not doubt, and an old trapper and observer has offered this theory to explain the condition where there are found both egg and young in the same nest, or squabs of widely varied ages. He asserts that when an egg is about ready to hatch, a second egg was deposited in the nest, and that the squab assisted in incubating the egg when the old birds were both away for food, and that in time a third and last egg was laid, so that three young were hatched each season, if the birds are unmolested.

This peculiarity may exist with the pigeon, but I can add nothing to further it from my own observations, except to record the finding of an egg in the nest with a half-grown bird—the only instance in my experience. From watching the ways of some captive birds kept as stool-pigeons, I am well satisfied that two young are not rarely hatched at some weeks apart, and they do fairly well in confinement.

The young are fed by a process known as regurgitation, the partially digested contents of the birds' crops being ejected into the mouths of the squabs.

The position of the nest varies greatly. Often the nests are well out on slender branches and in dangerous positions, considering the shiftlessness of the structure. When a rookery is visited, nests may be found in all manner of situation. I have found single nests built on small twigs next the body of an oak tree, and at a height of only ten feet, and again have seen nests forty feet up in thick tamaracks.

The eggs do not vary much in size or color. They are white, but without the polish seen on the egg of the domestic pigeon. About one and one-half by one inch is the regulation size.

By reference to old price lists of nearly a quarter of a century ago I find that the eggs were then listed at twenty-five cents, while it would be difficult to secure good specimens at present at six times the figure.