The Passenger Pigeon in Confinement
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
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
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
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 zo÷logical gardens; for what would be a
more valuable and interesting addition than an aviary
of this rapidly diminishing species?
LETTERS OF COMMENT FROM CHIEF POKAGON.
Hartford, Mich., Dec. 17, 1896.
Ruthven Deane, Chicago, Ill.
Dear Sir:—Your article on wild
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
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
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
Sorry I can give you no satisfactory details.
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.]