The Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)

Passenger Pigeon. 6k.


Male: Head slate blue, back of neck iridescent bronze, green or purple depending on lighting. Back slate gray turning to grey-brown. Throat and breast pale cinnamon, growing paler to white on the abdomen. Female: Similar to male but duller coloring with shorter tail. Approx. 8" wingspan. Link to the larger image.


Believed to be the whole of deciduous forested North America, but primarily east of the Mississippi from Hudson's Bay south to the Gulf of Mexico. Winter range's northern limit was Arkansas.


Hardwood deciduous forests.


Primarily beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts with other fruits, berries, and seeds. Insects, earthworms and other invertebrates also eaten.


Adult birds were monogamous. Nests were frail structures of sticks supported in forks of tree branches. Nested in great colonies several miles wide and stretching for up to 70 miles. The weight of their numbers caused trees to collapse and the forest understory was killed by their rich droppings. One white egg 1.5" long. Young were altricial, hatched with no down or feathers, blind and helpless. Squabs were fed crop milk. The crop is a food storage sack found at the bottom of a pigeon's esophagus. Fluid-filled cells slough off of the crop lining of both the male and female parents and are regurgitated to feed the young birds. The crop milk of pigeons is higher in protein and fat than human or cow milk.


Extremely fast flier, traveling at speeds of 60 miles per hour and covering 1000 miles in a day. Long lived, captive birds lived up to 25 years.


Reasons for extinction: market hunting and habitat loss. Once the most numerous bird on earth, accounting for 40% of the entire North American bird population. In 1806, Alexander Wilson estimated one flock at 2 billion birds. John James Audubon watched a flock fly overhead for three days. He estimated that at times 300 million passed overhead per hour. These were just two of many flocks. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Edward Forbush, in 1912 spoke most eloquently of the passenger pigeon,

"The pigeon was no mere bird, he was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two biotic poles of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and his own zest for living. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain-reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. Once the pigeoners had subtracted from his numbers, and once the settlers had chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or a wisp of smoke."