I recently traveled to Florida. While visiting the new state, I saw a few species of birds I had never seen before. This included the Palm Warbler, the some young Boat Tailed Grackles and one dove or pigeon type of bird. This kind of bird always ignites a certain unique sense of perspective for me.
I started to wonder if the Passenger Pigeon was really a dove, if the extinct species could still be alive today and where it would be living currently. I know I’ve seen at least one before. Where did I see one?
The Mourning Dove is a regular sighting for me. I like to think when I see one, or usually a pair, that I’m seeing a little pinkish tan bit of what the more American Robin colored Passenger Pigeon was. I thought this might be the Passenger Pigeon’s closest relative, like others. Perhaps they had bred together at some point and some of their DNA was still alive in this bird. The Mourning Dove looked like a smaller one with somewhat muted colors.
Unfortunately, DNA analysis put an end to that idea, mostly. I just learned that the Band-Tailed Pigeon seems to be the closest living relative. The blue grey bird doesn’t look as much like the Passenger Pigeon as the Morning Dove but it’s still nice to see them alive and doing well. I can see the resemblance in the pinker bellied ones and would like to see a Band-Tailed in person someday, maybe even sight a flock. Sadly, the Passenger species was also found to be the only one in its genus. That would seem to make hybridization and fertile offspring less likely.
However, while a bird called a pigeon seems to be the closest living relative, they could still be called Passenger Doves. The word pigeon is usually assigned to larger birds and doves to smaller, somewhat like horse and pony, but remember species are separated by species not breed. Hybridization with the Eurasian Collared Dove was known, but with infertile offspring. Also, another name for the Passenger Pigeon is the Wandering Long-tailed Dove. Even if these birds were smaller, the name Passenger would probably persist due to the preferred alliteration. Passenger also brings to mind their fleeting passing in flocks, that’s why they’re called Passenger Pigeons, and now how they have passed on through extinction. The name has stuck. The well know blue grey wild pigeon of American cities is now from Europe. I wonder, could they have bred? Could the Wild Pigeon of the USA have survived and now be alive in Europe?
In addition to the city birds, I have seen Eurasian Collared Doves in America. They are probably lost, escaped pets. Maybe that’s closer to seeing a living Passenger Pigeon in the wild? Or maybe I’ll have to go West to look in the mountains or forests of North and South America, or Mexico to look for members of their gene pool. Could they be in Florida? Could their migrating behavior have changed?
Years ago while bird watching, I saw an odd looking dove with a back pattern that included extra spots and slightly outlined feathers. It reminded me of an European Turtle Dove with muted colors, it could have been another escapee, but I guess it also could have been a juvenile Mourning Dove, also known as the American Turtle Dove. It could also have been my only sighting of a live juvenile Passenger Pigeon. Seeing a new species of bird is always special and one of this type always reminds me of extinction and the lost Blue Pigeon.
Genuine new color photos of the extinct species tend to be taxidermy museum specimens. There are plenty of those photos. So, definitely I have seen one Passenger Pigeon, in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, in person. It was “Martha”, on display in the Birds of the World exhibit that was up until 1999. She is no longer on display but remains in their collection. The new bird I saw recently was too small. I’m not sure about the other one. We’ll never look everywhere, but extinction is forever, the massive flocks are now gone, and the bird that once was would not be the same even if revived. Still, I would like to see any thought to be extinct species found alive, in the wild. Have you spotted one?
Personal bird sightings
“Long-Extinct Passenger Pigeon Finds a Place in the Family Tree” on Science Daily
DOVEs and PIGEONs of South America
“Martha,” The Last Passenger Pigeon at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC