Skip to main content
Original Issue


Thousands of birds in the hand may soon mean none in the bush, for at its present rate of decimation this native of the southern islands will become—like the passenger—a dead pigeon

If pigeons were as big as polar bears or as glamorous as leopards, there would be considerable growling among the watchdogs of the world's wildlife over the slaughter of the white-crowned pigeon. But the plight of Columba leucocephala has failed to arouse even a sympathetic sniff from those who should be concerned about its extinction. And unless drastic action is taken, extinction looms as a certainty.

The signals are classic: the bird's nesting, breeding and feeding grounds are disappearing at an alarming rate, while widespread and indiscriminate killing continues unchecked. That such signals have not served as red alerts in this era of conservation awareness, if not to ornithologists certainly to sportsmen, is as mystifying as some of the bird's habits.

No one seems really sure of where and how the while-crowned pigeon spends its winters. To date there has never been a full-scale scientific study of the bird's life, and the few scientists who have made private studies over the years are the first to admit that knowledge of the species is woefully inadequate. A handsome creature, the white-crowned pigeon has a snowy headdress, iridescent bronze-green neck feathers, crimson feet and maroon accents on otherwise gray plumage. It is considerably larger than the white-wing and mourning doves, measuring 13 to 14 inches in length and weighing between seven and eight ounces. Its flesh, all dark meat, is sweet-flavored and tender—factors which have enhanced its place on the dinner table at the expense of its longevity.

A bird of the southern islands, the white-crown once ranged in vast Hocks from the Bahamas and the Florida Keys south to the Lesser Antilles, and throughout the West Indies to Mexico and Central America. Today its numbers are drastically reduced and, while it still occurs on many of the islands, the only breeding populations of any significance that remain are in the Dominican Republic, the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and possibly Cuba.

Ornithologist C. J. Maynard, in his The Birds of Eastern North America (1896), described a nesting colony of white-crowned pigeons typical of the Bahamas at the end of the last century:

"One of the most remarkable sights that I ever witnessed as regards numbers of birds' nests was on one of the Washerwomen Keys off the South shore of Andros. These are small, rocky islets, lying on the barrier reef, and are some 25 feet high. On one of these little keys, which did not contain over an acre of land, there were at least 10,000 nests of the white-headed pigeon. The rocks were mostly covered with a scanty growth of low bushes and with a more luxuriant growth of cacti, and upon both plants and bushes the birds had placed their nests, and some were upon elevated portions of rock, while a few were placed upon the naked ground. So completely covered was the southern and northern portion of the key that the nests were nowhere over two feet apart, and often nearer together than that."

Other noted ornithologists of the past, including J. J. Audubon, Dr. Henry Bryant and P. H. Gosse, all reported observing similar vast breeding colonies in which nests were built on the tops of prickly pears, on the branches of the royal palm, on the upper shoots of mangroves and often on clumps of brush growing in the shallows where the nests hung down almost touching the water.

All took note of the bird's proclivity for nesting on remote keys, in dense concealing brush, factors which have probably contributed to its surviving this long. The bird's basically shy, suspicious nature has doubtless also contributed, but other characteristics have worked against it.

To understand these, it is necessary to review what is known of the white-crown's breeding pattern. The bird principally breeds in summer but may arrive at the nesting grounds as early as April and remain as late as October. The time it spends on the nesting grounds probably depends more upon weather and food conditions than upon the calendar. The number of hatches in a single season also seems dependent upon weather and food, and may be as few as one or as many as four.

Unlike gallinaceous birds such as the pheasant, turkey and grouse, which produce clutches of several eggs, the white-crowned pigeon rarely if ever produces more than two. Studies made by Alexander Sprunt, director of research of the National Audubon Society, and probably the best-informed authority on the species today, indicate that from those eggs a breeding pair produces only about two young a year. Compared with the reproduction of quail, for example, pigeon reproduction is low.

The incubation period lasts 13 days, during which both parents share the responsibility of tending the eggs. Where gallinaceous birds are fully developed at birth and generally able to follow their mothers soon after they hatch, the newborn squab is quite helpless. It often remains in the nest for as long as a month after birth, depending entirely upon its parents for food. Both male and female share the feeding chores, each producing in its crop a curdlike substance called pigeon's milk to feed the young.

It is during the breeding period, and particularly when the white-crowned pigeon has young, that it is most vulnerable. Normally it feeds in early morning and late afternoon, often flying 15 to 20 miles from the nesting site to a source of food and fresh water. Just as it needs lowland swamps and mangroves for its nesting site, the white-crowned pigeon needs hardwood forests for its food. An arboreal rather than a ground feeder, it depends upon the fruits and leaves of such trees as the sweetwood, breadnut, burnwood, fig, pimento and palm.

With no fledglings to feed, the white-crown flies in wild, erratic patterns at very high speeds, offering a target that is a challenge to even the best wing shots. But when there are young in the nest, it seems to have little time for such antics. Then the bird's flight, although still fast, is direct and determined, its sole purpose to get to food and get back to the nest as quickly as possible. Usually it adopts a specific path and follows it as if on a radar beam, ignoring any and all threats from below. Sometimes it flies so low over water that it appears to be skimming the surface, and over land it barely clears trees. At these times the bird seems bent on suicide.

There is no way to estimate the hundreds of thousands of white-crowned pigeons that have been killed by guns stationed out in the open without benefit of cover or blind, directly in one of these feeding flight paths. Hundreds of thousands more have been shot from boats anchored just off one of the breeding islands, only yards from the nesting grounds. Countless others have been killed on the feeding grounds as their Kamikaze flight led them straight to the guns of shooters waiting among the trees. Most victims of such slaughter leave un-hatched eggs or young squabs to die of starvation in their nests.

The white-crown slaughter is nothing new. Maynard took note of it nearly 100 years ago:

"Sportsmen from Nassau had been in the habit of visiting Green Key and shooting the breeding pigeons as-they flew from their nests to cross to Andros Island, some 15 miles distant, where they are said to go daily for food and water. Many of the nests of the previous season which I had examined on Green Key contained broken eggs that contained the remains of half-formed young, and in some of the nests were the skeletons of newly hatched young; the parents of both eggs and young had doubtless been killed as they left the nests. This sight was a most piteous appeal to humanity. I was informed by one of my boatmen, who had accompanied hunting parties to the key, that so great was the slaughter of pigeons that many more were killed than were needed, and that he had frequently seen hundreds of birds buried in the sand of the beach near where they were shot."

Nor were shotgunners the only villains Maynard cited. Referring again to the Washerwomen Keys, he wrote:

"My boatman informed me that this rookery was occupied by many thousand birds during the past year, and that the spongers were accustomed to visit the place at night and capture the sitting birds. This statement was confirmed by the remains of torches which were scattered about the island."

Other accounts—from Cuba, from the Bahamas, from the Dominican Republic—tell of organized beats in which natives moved systematically through breeding grounds, shaking bushes and trees until the squabs fell from their nests to the ground, where they where gathered by the thousands in bushel baskets to be used as pig feed.

It would be comforting to think that such outrages belonged only to the past, but the slaughter continues—the white-crowned pigeon is still being shot during its breeding season. Thousands of unhatched eggs and helpless squabs are still being left in nests with no hope of survival. Vast piles of dead birds are still rotting and decaying where they have been abandoned, victims of irresponsible hunters. And there is no indication that any of it will end until the last white-crowned pigeon has been eliminated.

Last season a number of hotels in the Bahamas had stepped up campaigns in Florida and other Southern states, advertising pigeon shoots with daily bag limits of 50 birds and possession limits of 200.

"I am really concerned about the setup there," says U.S. Game Management Agent Rudolph Switzer of Miami. "It's a cheap flight from here to the islands and you can mount a lot of hunting pressure advertising limits like that. What they didn't advertise is that U.S. regulations prohibit bringing in more than 10 birds in one calendar week. That means a lot of people are going to shoot birds and let them lay. It's a completely unrealistic waste of a fine natural resource."

Some people try smuggling birds in, but dead pigeons are more difficult to hide than pot. The most common attempts to bring birds in illegally are by private yacht, but Switzer and the U.S. Customs staff have become old hands at ferreting out foreign feathers. Switzer has seized as many as 500 white-crowns from a single yachtsman.

Illegal birds have also been flown in. A few years ago some 150 Floridians chartered two planes for a weekend shoot and returned with 1,000 pounds of pigeons. The more than 2,500 birds had neither been plucked nor gutted and many were already spoiled when the Department of Agriculture, alerted by the odor, confiscated the lot.

Until recently there were no bag limits at all on shooting white-crowned pigeons in the Dominican Republic, which regularly attracts shooters during the breeding season from Puerto Rico, Martinique, Jamaica, Florida and as far away as New York and Texas. Individuals have been known to take as many as 2,000 birds on a weekend. The new limit of 100 birds a day is not likely to do much for the pigeon population, since there are no game-law enforcement agents—or an effective game department—in the Dominican Republic and no one has been known to be arrested there for violating a game law.

The Dominican Republic is of major importance since it harbors the pigeon's single largest breeding grounds. Accurate population counts do not exist but educated estimates indicate that the other three major colonies—in the Bahamas, the Florida Bay area of the Keys, and the Lower Keys—number less than 10,000 birds each. Estimates of white-crowns remaining in Cuba are even more pessimistic since virtually all the bird's feeding grounds were wiped out after the revolution. Thus the population in the Dominican Republic, which may be as high as 300,000 birds, is by far the most viable.

The breeding area is centered on Saona Island, 40 square miles of uninhabited mangrove swamp lying just off the southeastern tip of Hispaniola, 22 nautical miles from the town of La Romana. The birds fly north from Saona across the Catuàn Strait and Catalinita Bay to the Dominican mainland, then inland as far as a mile to feed on the soft red elliptic fruit of the parrakeet tree, a plant indigenous to the West Indies.

As recently as 15 years ago the feeding grounds extended from a point about 10 miles west of La Romana along 60 miles of coastline to Cabo Enga√±o to the east. But much of that land has now been converted to sugarcane and grazing grasses, and what remains of this once richest of all white-crown feeding areas is less than 20 square miles between Punta Palmilla and Caleta Guanàbano.

Raul Villaverde, an executive of Gulf+Western, the conglomerate that virtually owns La Romana and most of the surrounding countryside, fears the bird cannot survive the guns. A season ago he conducted an informal survey of the bird's situation on Saona. His conclusions were grim.

On one Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Villaverde covered about 10 miles of coastline between Las Palmillas and Los Orejanos. He recorded over 7,500 pigeons killed by 45 shooters. The figure might have been higher except that on Friday only seven of the shooters turned out, making that day's bag a paltry 580 birds.

"This was a typical weekend harvest," Villaverde said. "It was estimated that last year's kill exceeded 100,000 birds, and it is my opinion that this estimate is on the low side.

"An average shot can expect to retrieve birds from 30% to 60% of his shells," he explained. "Let's imagine he averages an 'excellent' 50% score on 100 rounds. The other 50 rounds that did not down birds probably crippled 25 that will fly off and die, making a total kill of 75. Of these 75 birds, 50% would be females with two chicks in the nest. This brings the death toll to a total of around 150 birds." Of the pigeons Villaverde inspected, 60% of the females were carrying eggs and 90% of all the birds were in full plumage, confirming that they were in the middle of a hatch.

The parallels between the factors that doomed the passenger pigeon and those that now menace the white-crowned pigeon are all too obvious. Were it also a bird of the mainland, as was the passenger pigeon, the white-crown would doubtless have succumbed long ago. The remoteness of its range and its general inaccessibility have bought it time, but now that time is running out. The jet has made even the bird's most distant haunts no farther away than a weekend hop and, where once a privileged few partook of the slaughter, it is now open to all.

Just as the destruction of the forests which supplied its principal food and nesting places helped also to destroy the passenger pigeon, the destruction of specialized breeding and feeding places is helping to destroy the white-crown. All over the West Indies, once-great stands of fruit and hardwood trees are being replaced by sugarcane and subdivisions.

Industry is doing its bit. On St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, Crause Lagoon was a major white-crown breeding area only 10 years ago. Then, in 1962, Harvey Aluminum, Inc. moved its bulldozers in, tearing up the lagoon, destroying the mangroves and driving the white-crown out. Today not a single bird remains.

Until recently, rumors of Japanese negotiations to develop Saona Island raised fears that it might suffer the same fate as Crause Lagoon. A Puerto Rico contractor, Ventura Barnes, who has been studying the birds for two decades, was so alarmed at what he believed would result in their certain extinction that he mounted a campaign to prevent development of the island. Signing as many as 20 different names, he inundated everyone from Gulf+Western top brass to President Balaguer and his cabinet with impassioned letters imploring them to save Saona for the pigeons. As of this date it has been saved, but no one knows for how long.

On the Florida Keys, where all shooting is prohibited, the white-crown is safe from guns but its habitat is under fire. Here its principal food is the poisonwood which produces a berry delectable to pigeons and a rash despicable to people. The result is that as more and more development moves in, the poisonwood is being wiped out.

"It seems that every time I drive up a road these days," says Alexander Sprunt, "another field has been bulldozed for a trailer park or a shopping center. The native tree cover is disappearing everywhere. With its food basically threatened, the white-crowned pigeon's long-run existence has to be threatened."

And so, as man records his extraordinary technological achievements in this second half of the 20th century, it seems he will also be forced to record the elimination from this earth of one more species of wildlife.

This need not be. The white-crowned pigeon could be saved, but to do so would require unprecedented effort and cooperation among all the countries where the bird remains. All shooting must be prohibited during the entire nesting, breeding and hatching season. All other shooting must be suspended indefinitely until a broad-scale scientific study of the bird throughout its range determines how many, if any, can safely be shot—where, at what time of year, and for how long. The resultant laws must be scrupulously enforced in all countries and heavy fines levied for their violation. Existing nesting and feeding grounds must be guaranteed permanent protection. Additional new ones must be established and cultivated. Possible new food sources must be explored. More must be learned of the bird's migratory habits—how far it travels, where it winters, on what it feeds. The shooting and nonshooting public must be alerted to the pigeon's plight and united in efforts to prevent its extinction.

The white-crowned pigeon could be saved. The question is, will it?