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Birding for Passenger Pigeons
by Pam Rotella
24 August 2015, last updated 10 September 2015

NOTE: If you believe that you've seen a living passenger pigeon, please submit that sighting to HoriconBirds.com via the form included on the Contact page. If you give permission to post your sighting, it will appear on the Sightings page.

Although most biologists believe they are completely extinct, a few of us think that we've seen living passenger pigeons. I also believe that if more birders were prepared for seeing one in the field, the number of sightings would rise.

I'm sure that the birding and photography communities wouldn't mind seeing and photographing a passenger pigeon, if lucky enough to find one. But finding one is the luck and effort part of the equation. The other part is knowing the significance of what you may see.

With limited experience from my own sightings and those e-mailed to me, I'll try to put together a guide for those hoping to find a living passenger pigeon.

1.) Be open to it, but don't expect it.
I'm convinced that a few passenger pigeons are still alive -- I've seen them with my own eyes, several other people who've e-mailed me have seen them, and President Teddy Roosevelt himself saw a flock of living passenger pigeons near Charlottesville, Virginia after they had supposedly gone extinct.

I think the first step in seeing a passenger pigeon is to be open to it. If you happen to see a bird that looks like a passenger pigeon, isn't it possible that the bird is in fact a living passenger pigeon? You can walk away thinking that there must be some other explanation because people have prejudiced your mind, or you can be thankful that you found one... and try to get its picture, followed by reporting the sighting to HoriconBirds.com!

With that said, If passenger pigeons aren't quite extinct, they are incredibly rare. And so while it's good to be open to seeing one, don't expect it. Be thankful if you're that lucky. One reader also heard a passenger pigeon, an experience that seems to be even rarer.

If you do see a passenger pigeon, there's a good chance that you'll never see it again. Passenger pigeons are known for traveling nearly constantly, a strategy that helped them to evade predators until the telegraph assisted pigeon hunters in locating them. On the bright side, that traveling habit (if it remains in the culture of the few survivors) means that there are many chances for people all over the country to see one of the few living birds. But it also means that most of the time, they'll only be in your area for a few days before leaving. The one time they may stay in an area longer is during breeding season, if they're successful in finding a mate.

2.) Know what a passenger pigeon looks like
If you'd rather know that your sighting is rarer than winning the lottery while you're still in the field, and that it's a good idea to get a picture if you can, then it's best to know what passenger pigeons look like before you see one in person. Not many birding field guides include passenger pigeons these days, but thanks to the internet, you can see an abundance of old pictures and drawings online before going into the field. Simply Google "passenger pigeon" and then click the "More Images" link in the little collage of pictures that Google presents off to the side. Your web browser should fill with dozens of pictures and drawings of passenger pigeons.

There are also other ways of identifying passenger pigeons, by a comparison to mourning doves and other pigeons...

3.) Take the time to look at "mourning doves"!
When I first saw a living passenger pigeon, I initially thought it was a very large mourning dove because it had a similar outline in my peripheral vision. I think the most important point to take from this section is to pay extra attention to mourning doves in general. If you see a mourning dove off to the side somewhere, and don't bother to look directly at it, you may miss the rarest bird of your life.

Most people who've sent me passenger pigeon sightings also first thought they were seeing a mourning dove. Passenger pigeons look similar enough to mourning doves to describe them by comparison. But don't expect to notice all of the differences when you first see a passenger pigeon. You may notice the size and color difference, and perhaps a couple of other characteristics, unless you're lucky enough to take a good picture that you can scrutinize later.

First, for reference and comparison, below is a classic mourning dove photograph. I saw this bird in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and he was displaying his tail fan for me, which is why I thought the photo was special enough to sell online. Notice his tan color, eye rings, pretty pink feet, dove-like posture leaning forward, and his wide lower tummy. This is a normal, healthy-looking mourning dove.

Mourning dove at Richard Bong State Recreation Area, Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Photo by Pam Rotella.
Mourning dove displays his tail fan at Richard Bong State Recreation Area, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 20 June 2009. Photo by Pam Rotella.

Starting with the bird above and your own mourning dove pictures and sightings, these are the most obvious ways that passenger pigeons differ from mourning doves:

a.) Passenger pigeons are larger than mourning doves, if you have a way of estimating the birds' size by comparison to nearby objects or other birds.

b.) Passenger pigeons are very athletic and tend to have their weight distributed more toward their breast, which is very large, while their lower tummies are narrower. Mourning doves typically (although not always) have a shape with a more consistent width from their breast to lower tummies.

c.) Passenger pigeon posture is usually upright, while mourning doves usually lean forward like doves in general, although sometimes mourning doves perch in the same manner as passenger pigeons.

d.) Passenger pigeons usually have a red breast, although females may have a lighter orange, yellow or brown breast. My experience is that the male's breast can be a beautiful shade of red, as dark as a robin's, that draws your attention in bright sunlight. Mourning doves tend to have a tan or light brown breast, sometimes with a slight variation like a yellow, grayish, or rosy tint.

e.) Passenger pigeons have a gray back with some darker and lighter markings, although exact shade and markings on the back and wings may vary. Mourning doves typically have a tan or brown back that's slightly darker than their bellies, with dark markings. A few have a darker shade of brown or grayish brown back.

f.) Passenger pigeons have amber or red eyes, while mourning doves' eyes are black or dark brown.

g.) Passenger pigeons have feet described as "clear lake red" in color, although mourning doves also have dark pink or reddish feet.

h.) Passenger pigeons have some beak color variation, usually a yellow and gray or black design, but in general the head and beak looks much like other pigeons' and mourning doves'.

i.) Passenger pigeons do not sound like mourning doves. One reader who sent in a sighting from Iowa said that the bird croaked like a tree frog, and they can make that and several other sounds, apparently most often a "chattering" sound. The Nebraska Bird Library describes passenger pigeon calls as "Coos along with loud croaking, chattering, and clucking noises." Mourning doves have a very distinctive "coo" song which is different from pigeons, with a shortened version of their call when excited or warning other birds. As far as I know, mourning doves and passenger pigeons have no songs or calls in common.

j.) Mourning doves have rings around their eyes that are usually blue in color, although only some photos have a high enough resolution for the eye rings to be visible. Usually the lighting and resolution must be good to capture that trait in a photograph. Passenger pigeons also may have eye rings, although only some old drawings and photos of taxidermied birds show them. I'm not yet sure of the color. It may have been gold, yellow, or bare.

k.) Passenger pigeons were known for having long black and white tail fans that were pointed, however mourning doves also have black and white tail fans, as pictured above. The pattern of black and white, shape, and size differed between the two species, but in my experience it's rare for any bird species to display their full fans other than for flirting or mid-air acrobatics. You'd be quite lucky to differentiate passenger pigeons this way.

l.) Natural variation makes some mourning doves more similar to passenger pigeons than others.

m.) Passenger pigeons also had a reputation for excellent eye sight and flight skills. They had the habit of traveling from place to place every few days, other than during breeding season when they'd stay long enough to nest and raise a chick.

n.) Passenger pigeons preferred to eat acorns, but were willing to eat other types of nuts, seeds, berries, worms, and insects. Mourning doves prefer seeds, although they occasionally eat insects.

One extra thing to consider is the natural variety of Wisconsin's mourning doves, which may cause you to write off your own sighting as a natural variety of mourning doves, as I did with my second sighting during 2015. Notice that the photo below was taken soon after my first passenger pigeon sighting. That's because I wanted to document different varieties of mourning doves found in Wisconsin to show how some of them are very similar to passenger pigeons.

These doves caught my attention because of two things -- their posture and thin lower bellies. Yet despite a stance and shape similar to passenger pigeons, clearly they are mourning doves with tan breasts and dark eyes. Perhaps they were undernourished, or more likely a natural variety of mourning doves with an athletic build.

Mourning doves on a power line in Wisconsin, 24 August 2014.  Photo by Pam Rotella.
Mourning doves on a power line in Wisconsin, 24 August 2014. Photo by Pam Rotella.

Also notice the birds' feet. An old Smithsonian article described passenger pigeon feet as "a clear lake red" (googling "red lake pigment" will bring up some google images of the color). While the mourning dove pictured previously also has very pretty dark pink feet which are similar in color, the two mourning doves shown here definitely have a darker and clearer color to them. The mourning dove feet I see are usually slightly thicker than this, with white wrinkles that make the feet appear to be dark pink instead of red. Thinner, less-weathered feet make sense for passenger pigeons because they spend much of their time in the air.

The next photo, below, shows mourning doves with backs that are a darker grayish brown color and much darker than their heads, which is unusual for mourning doves (although the drab color may have been due to lighting conditions). This is a normal variety of mourning doves in Wisconsin, and although their backs have a grayish hue to them, these birds have the typical mourning dove posture, leaning forward.

Mourning dove variety seen in Wisconsin, Photo by Pam Rotella.
Mourning dove variety seen in Wisconsin, 24 August 2014, Photo by Pam Rotella.

Another mourning dove, pictured below, has a color variation that's somewhat in the direction of a male passenger pigeon. Notice its slightly rosy breast and grayish back of the head and neck. This coloring is not due to any special lighting conditions, as the sky was blue and the sun was bright white. Even so, this bird's coloring isn't even 10% of that of a male passenger pigeon. Its posture is also that of a mourning dove, as is the color of its eyes and beak, and all other features that I can see.

Mourning dove color variety, Photo by Pam Rotella.
Mourning dove color variety seen in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 6 September 2015. Notice the slightly rosy breast and grayish back of the head and heck. Photo by Pam Rotella.

Finally, the photo below depicts regular city pigeons, sometimes called "Feral Pigeons" or urban pigeons. They are not similar to mourning doves or passenger pigeons, and so while watching and photographing them may be as fun as any other birding activity, paying extra attention to city pigeons probably won't help in finding a passenger pigeon.

Urban pigeons found on a path to the rapids of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, 13 June 2015.  Photo by Pam Rotella.
Urban pigeons found on a path to the rapids of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, 13 June 2015. Photo by Pam Rotella.

4.) Location is important... maybe
Passenger pigeons were known to roost and nest in trees, and their favorite food was acorns. They're basically woodland birds. But that doesn't mean you'll see them in wooded areas. Both of my sightings were on power lines along rural roads, although forests were nearby. And while they may prefer acorns, they were known to eat a variety of nuts, seeds, grains, and insects. Although it seems more likely that we'd find them near a forest, you never know where your daily activities will intersect with their travels.

There's also the issue of their natural range. While I'd suspect that most sightings will be within their old range of the east coast to midwest of North America, surviving birds may travel out of that range in search of a mate or more suitable environment. Birds in general are known to travel outside of their migratory range at times, especially when resources are thin.

5.) Don't doubt what you saw
Yes, we've all heard the stories that passenger pigeons are extinct now. All scientists are aware of every bird in every corner of the earth, and none of them are passenger pigeons.

But once you've seen a living passenger pigeon, is that information helpful, or just another work of fiction? Perhaps yet another time that scientists are wrong?

I haven't published all of my experiences on the web, but I can tell you that I know of girls who are dead now because certain policemen refused to believe things I'd told them in the past. It's that whole "don't believe your own eyes" thing again, a tactic bullies use to intimidate victims into silence. But it's just another lie. In the legal profession, it's called witness tampering.

If you saw a bird that looks like a passenger pigeon, then that's what you saw. Maybe you don't want to say it was a passenger pigeon, but you can specify the individual details that you did see -- perhaps a red breast, gray back, pigeon's head and beak, with a larger size than other pigeons and doves you'd seen in the past. The facts are the facts.

If you doubt yourself for reasons other than the drumbeat of passenger pigeons being extinct, then you can detail those individual facts, too. Maybe the lighting wasn't very good. Maybe the birds were far away. Maybe you had no way of estimating their size.

Or maybe there's nothing in reality that caused you to doubt what you saw. Which brings me to the most important part of a passenger pigeon sighting -- a willingness to tell the truth.

On 10 September 2015, the photo and description of the mourning dove in Fort Wayne, Indiana was added, along with its caption and one-paragraph description.

All original content including photographs © 2015 by Pam Rotella.