The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter XVII

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The Passenger Pigeon in Confinement
(Ectopistes migratorius)

From "The Auk ," July, 1896.

IN the American Field of December 5, 1895, I noticed a short note, stating that Mr. David Whittaker of Milwaukee, Wis., had in a spacious inclosure a flock of fifty genuine wild pigeons. Being much interested of late in this bird, I at once wrote to Mr. Whittaker, asking for such information in detail regarding his birds as he could give me, but, owing to absence from the city, he did not reply. Still being anxious to learn something further regarding this interesting subject, I recently wrote to a correspondent in Milwaukee, asking him to investigate the matter. In due time I received his reply, stating that he had seen the pigeons, but that the flock consisted of fifteen instead of fifty birds, and inviting me to join him and spend a few hours of rare pleasure.

On March 1, 1896, I visited Milwaukee, and made a careful inspection of this beautiful flock. I am greatly indebted to Mr. Whittaker, through whose courtesy we saw and heard so much of value and interest, not only in regard to his pet birds, but also about his large experience with the wild pigeon in its native haunts; for, being a keen observer of nature, and having been a prospector for many years among the timber and mining regions of Wisconsin, Michigan and Canada, his opportunities for observation have been extensive. In the fall of 1888 Mr. Whittaker received from a young Indian two pairs of pigeons, one of adults and the other quite young. They were trapped near Lake Shawano, in Shawano County in northeastern Wisconsin.

Shortly after being confined, one of the old birds scalped itself by flying against the wire netting, and died; the other one escaped. The young pair were, with much care and watching, successfully raised, and from these the flock has increased to its present number, six males and nine females. The inclosure, which is not large, is built behind and adjoining the house, situated on a high bluff overlooking Milwaukee River. It is built of wire netting and inclosed on the top and two sides with glass. There is but slight protection from the cold, and the pigeons thrive in zero weather as well as in summer. A few branches and poles are used for roosting, and two shelves, about one foot wide and partitioned off, though not inclosed, are where the nests are built and the young are raised. It was several years before Mr. Whittaker successfully raised the young, but, by patient experimenting with various kinds of food, he has been rewarded. The destruction of the nests and egg, at times by the female, more often by others of the flock, and the killing of the young birds, after they leave the nest, by the old males, explains in part the slow increase in the flock.

When the pigeons show signs of nesting, small twigs are thrown onto the bottom of the inclosure; and, on the day of our visit, I was so fortunate as to watch the operations of nest building. There were three pairs actively engaged. The females remained on the shelf, and, at a given signal which they only uttered for this purpose, the males would select a twig or straw, and in one instance a feather, and fly up to the nest, drop it and return to the ground while the females placed the building material in position and then called for more.

In all of Mr. Whittaker's experience with this flock he has never known of more than one egg being deposited. Audubon, in his article on the Passenger Pigeon, says: "A curious change of habits has taken place in England in those pigeons which I presented to the Earl of Kirby in 1830, that nobleman having assured me that, ever since they began breeding in his aviaries, they have laid only one egg." The eggs are usually laid from the middle of February to the middle of September, some females laying as many as seven or eight during the season, though three or four is the average.

The period of incubation is fourteen days, almost to a day, and, if the egg is not hatched in that time, the birds desert it. As in the wild state, both parents assist in incubation, the females sitting all night, and the males by day. As soon as the young are hatched the parents are fed on earth worms, beetles, grubs, etc., which are placed in a box of earth, from which they greedily feed, afterwards nourishing the young, in the usual way, by disgorging the contents from the crop. At times the earth in the inclosure is moistened with water and a handful of worms thrown in, which soon find their way under the surface. The pigeons are so fond of these tid-bits they will often pick and scratch holes in their search, large enough to almost hide themselves.

When the birds are sitting during cold weather, the egg is tucked up under the feathers, as though to support the egg in its position. At such times the pigeon rests on the side of the folded wing, instead of squatting on the nest. During the first few days, after the young is hatched, to guard against the cold, it is, like the egg, concealed under the feathers of the abdomen, the head always pointing forward. In this attitude, the parents, without changing the sitting position or reclining on the side, feed the squab by arching the head and neck down, and administering the food. The young leave the nest in about fourteen days, and then feed on small seeds, and later, with the old birds, subsist on grains, beech nuts, acorns, etc.

The adults usually commence to molt in September and are but a few weeks in assuming their new dress, but the young in the first molt are much longer. At the time of my visit the birds were all in perfect plumage. The young in the downy state are a dark slate-color.

The pigeons are always timid, and ever on the alert when being watched, and the observer must approach them cautiously to prevent a commotion. They inherit the instincts of their race in a number of ways. On the approach of a storm the old birds will arrange themselves side by side on the perch, draw the head and neck down into the feathers, and sit motionless for a time, then gradually resume an upright position, spread the tail, stretch each wing in turn, and then, as at a given signal, they spring from the perch and bring up against the wire netting with their feet as though anxious to fly before the disturbing elements. Mr. Whittaker has noticed this same trait while observing pigeons in the woods.

It was with a peculiar sense of pleasure and satisfaction that I witnessed and heard all the facts about this flock, inasmuch as but few of us expect to again have such opportunities with this pigeon in the wild state. It is to be hoped that, if Mr. Whittaker continues to successfully increase these birds, he will dispose of a pair to some zoölogical gardens; for what would be a more valuable and interesting addition than an aviary of this rapidly diminishing species?


Hartford, Mich., Dec. 17, 1896.

Ruthven Deane, Chicago, Ill.

Dear Sir:—Your article on wild pigeons (O-me-me-oo) received and just read with much interest. I am now satisfied you are deeply interested in those strange birds, or you would not have gone to Milwaukee to see them. I would like to have Whittaker's full name and address so I can learn the come-out of that little flock. You note his flock stands zero weather. Many times in my life I have known O-me-me-oo, while nesting, to be obliged to search for food in from four to six inches of snow, and have seen the snow at such times upturned and intermixed with forest leaves for miles and miles. They would move out of the nesting grounds in vast columns, flying one over the other. I have seen them at such times reminding me of a vast flood of water rolling over a rocky bottom, sending the water in curved lines upwards and falling farther down the stream.

I have seen them many times building nests by the thousand within sight, both male and female assisting in building the nest. I have counted the number of sticks used many times; they number from seventy to one hundred and ten, sometimes so frail I have plainly seen the eggs from the ground.

I visited a nesting north of Kilburn City, Wis., about twenty-five years ago, and I there counted as high as forty nests in scrub oaks not over twenty-five feet high; in many places I could pick the eggs out of the nests, being not over five or six feet from the ground.

I stopped then with the Win-a-ba-go Indians, and was much interested in seeing them play mog-i-cin. I had heard the fathers explain the game when a boy, but never saw it before. I call it a gambling game. Certain it is, when nesting in a wild state, the male goes out at break of day; returning from eight to eleven he takes the nest; the hen then goes out, returning from one to four, and takes the nest; then the male goes out, returning, according to feed, between that time and night.

After the young leave their nests, I have always noticed that a few, both males and females, stay with them. I have seen as many as a dozen young ones assemble about a male, and, with drooping wings, utter the plaintive begging notes to be fed, and never saw them misused at such times by either gender. Certain it is, while feeding their young they are frantic for salt. I have seen them pile on top of each other, about salt springs, two or more deep. I wonder if your friend gives his birds, while brooding, salt.

Hartford, Mich., Dec. 18, 1896.

Dear Sir:—Yours of December 17th at hand. It is indeed surprising to me that your place of business is so close to old Fort Dearborn. In writing you yesterday, I overlooked what you said about the Milwaukee man's experience with his birds just hatching. I understand they were young birds. Thirty-two years ago there was a big nesting between South Haven and St. Joseph on Lake Michigan. About one week after the main body commenced nesting, a new body of great size, covering hundreds of acres, came and joined them. I never saw nests built so thick, high and low. I found they were all young birds less than a year old, which could be easily explained from their mottled coloring. To my surprise, soon as nests were built, they commenced tearing them down—a few eggs scattered about told some had laid; within three days they all left, moving in a body up the lake shore north. I have had like facts told me by others who have witnessed the same thing; and therefore conclude that your friend's experience accurately portrays the habits of these birds in their wild state.

University of Chicago,

May 30, 1904.

Dear Sir:—I have ten of the wild pigeons; they are from a single pair obtained by Mr. Whittaker of Milwaukee about twenty years ago. Mr. W. bred from this pair until he had a dozen or more. I obtained a few pairs from him, and they bred fairly well for a few years, but lately have failed to accomplish anything.

This season a single egg was obtained. It developed for about a week and then halted. The stock is evidently weakened by inbreeding so long. I can give no information as to time of disappearance. I have sought information far and near. Only a few birds have been reported the last three years. One was reported on pretty reliable grounds from Toronto last summer.

Sorry I can give you no satisfactory details.

Yours truly,

C. O. Whitman.

[Under date of June 6, 1905, Prof. Whitman of the University of Chicago wrote to me that his flock had been reduced from ten to four since he last wrote. He says that one pair were then beginning the maneuvers preceding nesting, but he doubted very much if they would accomplish anything.]