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.