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Passenger Pigeon

Ectopistes migratorius


The adult male passenger pigeon's head and upper parts were clear bluish gray with black streaks on the scapulars and wing coverts, there was an iridescent pinkish patch on each side of the throat that became shining metallic bronze, green, and purple at the back of the neck, and the lower throat and breast were a soft rose, gradually shading to white on the lower abdomen. The adult female was duller and paler than the male, with a brownish gray head and neck and a pale cinnamon breast; the throat and back patches were also duller. In overall coloration, the passenger pigeon looked very similar to the mourning dove, but could be distinguished by its iris color -- the iris of the mourning dove is dark brown, while that of an adult male passenger pigeon was bright red, and that of an adult female orange.

illustration of male and female passenger pigeons

The passenger pigeon was also slightly larger than the mourning dove, averaging about 16 inches long, and weighing about 14 ounces, compared to 14 inches and 6 ounces for the mourning dove.

Distribution and Habitat

Passenger pigeons once roosted by the tens of millions in the hardwood forests of the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. Their nesting range extended from the Great Lakes east to New York, and they wintered from Arkansas to North Carolina south to the uplands of the Gulf Coast states. During the migratory season, it was not uncommon for people to report flocks so huge that it took several hours for them to pass overhead.


Communal nesting sites were established in forest areas with a sufficient supply of food and water available within daily flying range. A single site might cover many thousands of acres and contain hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs. The birds were usually so congested in these areas that hundreds of nests could be counted in a single tree. Each nest was loosely constructed of small sticks and twigs and was about a foot in diameter.

It is believed that only one white egg was laid per nesting, which was incubated by both parents for 12-14 days. Chicks were cared for by both parents for about 14 days, at which time they were able to find food on their own.It is generally assumed that two broods were raised per season.


Passenger pigeons fed primarily on beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries, supplemented by worms and insects in the spring and summer.


The single greatest advantage to roosting, migrating, and breeding in such huge numbers was that the number of local animal predators was so small compared to the total number of birds, little damage would be inflicted on the flock as a whole. Those huge flocks proved to be a disadvantage against humans, however. Native Americans and early colonists occasionally hunted pigeons for food, but it wasn't until pigeon meat became a "fad food" in the early- and mid-1800's that humans began having a direct effect on passenger pigeon numbers. Hunters had by then already learned that huge numbers of pigeons could be killed in a short time by simply disturbing a roosting tree and then blasting away as the birds tried to escape, as a single blast of buckshot could fell 100 or more; shooting into a migrating flock was equally effective. As pigeon meat became more and more popular, professional hunters devised a number of ways to kill more birds with even less effort. By 1850 the destruction of the pigeons was in full force, and by 1860 it was noticed that the numbers of birds seemed to be decreasing, but still the slaughter continued. One of the last large nestings of passenger pigeons occurred at Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878, where 50,000 birds were killed a day over a period of almost five months. When the surviving adult birds attempted second nestings at new sites, they were soon located by the professional hunters and killed before they had a chance to raise any young.

While the the mass hunts of the 1800's often decimated entire local populations, leaving too few survivors to repopulate that area, this alone would have only led to isolated extinctions, not a species-wide extinction. What sealed the passenger pigeon's fate was the simultaneous cutting down of huge tracts of forests, which prevented the surviving populations from coming together into the huge flocks they relied on for survival. The last wild flock of passenger pigeons was recorded in Pike County, Ohio, on March 24, 1900, although a few captive specimens were still scattered across the United States. The last known passenger pigeon was "Martha" (named for Martha Washington), who died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914; her body was donated to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, where it was displayed for a time (it is still in the museum's collections but is no longer on display).

Scientific Classification

phylum Chordata
subphylum Vertebrata
class Aves
order Columbiformes
family Columbidae
genus & species Ectopistes migratorius

See Also

Mourning Dove
Martha Washington

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The Robinson Library >> Order Columbiformes

This page was last updated on September 01, 2018.