Nesting Habits of the Passenger Pigeon
By Eugene Pericles (Dr. Morris Gibbs), from "The O÷logist, 1894."
THERE are hundreds and perhaps thousands of
the younger readers of The O÷logist 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
o÷logists, 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
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
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
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
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
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.