From The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania
By John C. French
Some Information About their Characteristics,
Classification and Peculiarities – Ornithology
The pigeon tribe, comprising the large order of Columbae, contains many beautiful and interesting birds, various families being styled doves in our nomenclature of them and in our every-day language. They are all distinguished from poultry and gallinaceous birds in general, by the form of the bill, which is arched towards the tip, with a convex swelling at the base, caused by a gristly plate covering the nasal cavities, which is curiously developed in some species. To enable the parent birds to feed their young, the gullet swells into a double crop, furnished with glands, enlarged during their brooding season, which mingle their secretions of certain acids with the food, to soften it into an emulsion, similar to the milk of mammals; or thick cream combined with the casein, in consolidated form, like the curds in making cheese from milk, so when the birds throw up the food after their fashion, to feed their young, the whole mass in the curd pouch has a soft, pulpy consistence, suitable to the delicate digestive powers of the tender young birds, and their rapid growth is astonishing.
The emulsion ducts of passenger pigeons, at breeding season, expanded into visible white strings from their breast to the curd pouch, outside of their feathers, hanging like the bridle reins of a horse in motion, when under saddle, and held by and experienced rider. By this mark the hunters knew a brooding bird at a glance, even in flight, when the wild pigeons had returned and assembled at their nesting colony, before nest building began and until the squabs had been abandoned to hunt their own food. Then the ducts shrank beneath the feathers, until they became active for another brooding period. They have been classified as genus of Ectopistes, moving from place, and sometimes the term, Migratorius is added for emphasis. The bill had longitudinal nostrils in the middle of it. The wings were long and pointed; first and second quills longest. The tail was long; four central feathers sharp. Tarsi were feathered to knees. They were peculiar to North America in habitat.
The birds of North America are catalogued in about 925 species and subspecies. Many extensive works on them show their histories as only the science of ornithology can do. The family likeness is strong enough for even a novice in ornithology to know a pigeon when he sees one, except in one or two varieties that are more puzzling, even to trained observers.
Their powers of wing are usually great, the pigeon being proverbially swift and enduring. They are found in almost all parts of the globe, from the artic circle to the Antarctic, where vegetation supplies food for them to feed upon. In the warmer regions they are most plentiful. In this country their colors are soft and pleasing, their necks glowing with a changeful beauty, but not particularly striking for depth or brilliancy; while in the tropics the pigeons are among the most magnificent of the feathered tribes, their plumage being imbued with the richest colors, and often assuming elegant forms.
For distributing the seeds, upon which they subsist, the pigeons are usually useful, and of great benefit. For utility the Fruit Pigeons of Oceanica are a good example. In Pellew and the neighboring islands it is a forest loving bird, taking up its residence in the woods, where it finds abundance of food. The favorite diet is the soft covering of the nutmeg, known as “Mace,” and the flavor which this aromatic food imparts to the flesh is so peculiarly delicate that the pigeons are in great request for the table, and are shot in large numbers. During the nutmeg season food is so abundant that the pigeons become so extremely plump, that when they are shot and fall to the ground they often burst asunder.
As an agency for disseminating, far and wide, the seeds of the remarkable nutmeg tree pigeons are most useful. Being of large appetite they swallow the nutmeg together with the mace, but only the mace is subject to digestion, the nutmeg passing through the system with reproductive powers uninjured; they are also improved by the sojourn in the pigeon’s body, which seems necessary to cause them to grow, for they must have chemical treatment, when planted by human hands, before they will take root from the seeds. In color this bird is as follows: The forehead, cheeks and throat are grayish-white, and the rest of the head and the back of the neck are gray with a slaty-blue wash. The back and upper portions of the body are light metallic green. The lower part of the throat and the breast are rusty gray; the thighs and abdomen are deep brownish-red. The under surface of the tail is green with a reddish gloss. The adult bird is fifteen inches long.
In a similar manner, passenger pigeons disseminated the seeds of the black cherry tree and many other wild fruits by dropping the pits of each variety, throughout the forests in this country, wherever they sojourned in the season for each; and also cranberries and the other native wild fruits. The beech tree was brought to different localities through their agency.
On the west slope of the Rocky Mountains the Band-tailed Pigeons, (Columbia fasciata), were numerous, and they are a handsome species, about the size of domestic pigeons, with similar habits. Their color are ash above, inclining to olive tints on the back, with a fine bluish cast on the rump; and a narrow half-collar of white across the supper part of the neck. They are about fifteen inches long.
All pigeons have a wonderful power of finding their homes, even if taken to great distance from them. Their mode of finding their domiciles has been a subject of animated discussions, “since the memory of man runneth not contrary thereto.” One party arguing that it is an instinctive operation; another that it is entirely by sight; and a third, that it is by a combination of the two, with a very sensitive recognition of the waves of electricity through the atmosphere, that each bird uses in a peculiar way, indicating to the bird its direction from home, and the way to travel, until sight avails to fix the route. To an observer of a flock of young passenger pigeons, a few days after the old birds had all departed to new nestings on Sydenham Lakes, in Ontario, it was mighty interesting to find the young birds at Watertown, New York, the next day; then near the Bay of Quinte the second day, and all of them in the woods of Sydenham Valley the third day. Telepathy or intuition is certainly suggested.