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The holy grail of birding: Pam's passenger pigeon sighting
by Pam Rotella
11 September 2014

NOTE: I now have a separate page with Passenger Pigeon Sightings from the birding community. If you think you've seen a passenger pigeon, visit the Contact page for a form to submit your sighting to appear on the Sightings page.

FOND DU LAC COUNTY, WISCONSIN - While driving along a rural 2-lane highway this summer, I spotted three swallows sitting on a power line, approached by a very large mourning dove. Because I'm always looking for good pictures, the larger bird caught my eye. The lighting was perfect, slanted but with direct sunlight coming from the other side of my car, illuminating the birds like a spotlight.

The dove landed about a foot away from the swallows, and that's when I realized that I wasn't seeing one of the many mourning doves or kestrels in the area, but a living passenger pigeon.

The bird had a pigeon's head and beak, a gray back, and a breast as red as a robin's. He was taller and wider at the shoulders than any mourning dove I'd ever seen, his size approximated by comparison to the swallows next to him. The pigeon also looked more athletic than a dove or other pigeons -- less chubby in the lower tummy, with a slight bird's "cleavage."

I wondered about his lower stomach, which wasn't fat like most pigeons' or doves'. That could mean he was low on fat reserves. Perhaps he was nesting in the area, and had spent his stored energy on raising chicks. Another possibility is that the bird had blown off course, or his normal nesting grounds had become uninhabitable, and he'd flown a long way to find an area with many large flocks of similar-looking mourning doves.

I had my camera with me and wanted that picture, knowing it would be important to have proof of the encounter. I'd also welcome other birders' opinions on what they think the bird is, if not a passenger pigeon.

I braked, intending to stop on the shoulder and take pictures through the driver's window. But the large pigeon tilted its head and watched me approach, and then flew off before I could stop the car or raise the camera. The swallows remained on the line, the male with his back toward traffic. That's when I noticed another car coming up quickly behind me. The pigeon had actually been watching two cars approaching, the one behind me making noise and no doubt attracting his attention.

Even when birds are acclimated to traffic, and I employ my usual method of using my car as a duck blind, missed photo opportunities are the norm. I don't have an exact percentage, but I'd estimate that even under the best circumstances in a bird-rich environment like Horicon Marsh, birds evade being photographed the majority of the time.

And so just like any other day, I didn't get the picture. I do intend to try again if I see the bird in the future, however.

Without proof of the encounter, I didn't report the sighting or even take notes. Rather I intended to look at "mourning doves" and pigeons in Wisconsin more closely, hoping to find that passenger pigeon again, or ideally his flock.

Yet even without the photo, I'm convinced that the large bird was a living passenger pigeon, and recently decided to make that information public. I think it's important to reveal that a bird photographer saw a living passenger pigeon.

The bird's good flight skills also matched the description of passenger pigeons. He needed very little space to launch toward the road, do a tight turn to proceed in the direction away from traffic, and avoid the additional power lines above the lower lines that the pigeon and his companions had perched on.

While I didn't note the highway or general location of the sighting, I have an idea of where I was. I do remember the power line design, lower than modern lines and close to the road. That's why I was able to identify the bird without use of a long camera lens or binoculars. Only certain highways have those types of electrical lines, and then only in certain spots.

The power line design of the original passenger pigeon sighting, Photo by Pam Rotella.
UPDATE: The power line design of the original passenger pigeon sighting, possibly even the same location near Ripon, Wisconsin, 25 May 2015 (date of photo, not the sighting). Photo by Pam Rotella.

Although I won't publish the exact road where I believe the sighting occurred online, to help preserve both avian and human habitats there, I will say that one of three counties is almost certainly the location. In the order of likelihood: Fond du Lac County, Green Lake County, or Waushara County, Wisconsin. However, around the same time frame, I did pass through other counties where there's a lower chance the sighting occurred: Marquette, Dodge, Sauk, Adams, Waupaca, Winnebago, Outagamie, Brown, Juneau, Portage, Marathon, Columbia, La Crosse, Monroe, Wood, and Jackson Counties, Wisconsin (roughly in that order of likelihood).

While the date of the sighting wasn't noted, it was definitely later than the July 4th weekend, and at the latest early August. There's a good chance it was when the EAA air show in Oshkosh was just starting, because I seem to remember thinking to myself that I was glad I hadn't headed out right away to the air show, or I would have missed the holy grail of bird sightings.

Passenger pigeons are rarely spoken of today, and I've only heard their story a few times in my life. Described as numbering in the billions as Europeans arrived in the Americas, the birds went extinct from over-hunting and allegedly habitat loss. Yet every time I've heard that story, I've wondered how pockets of them hadn't survived. The theories on this range from overzealous hunters exterminating every last bird to an inability to live in small flocks. I'm not sure that I buy either idea, with their previous ranges extending into Canada, an area with vast expanses of land barely touched by humans. Even northern Wisconsin is great habitat for other birds. Living among mourning doves who like to gather on power lines, or wild pigeons who seem to prefer tops of farm silos, would give them a good chance of being mistaken for more common birds, hiding in plain sight.

I've even noticed two or more small flocks of tall and lean "mourning doves" with gray backs and peachy-tan tummies in the same general region. And there are quite a few flocks of other gray-backed mourning doves in the same area who aren't as tall or lean, who also like to perch on power lines in groups. So far, I've assumed that all of those gray-backed doves are a variation of mourning doves, and frankly I can't say they're anything else because I don't know that. However, some photos of passenger pigeons seem to imply that female passenger pigeons could have peach-colored tummies.

But to be clear for other birdwatchers, the bird I saw didn't have a breast that was "peachy." It was a dark or medium orange-red, the same hue as most American robins'. There are many pictures and drawings of passenger pigeons online. Click here, here, or here to see online photos that look almost exactly like the bird I saw.

Another bird that serious birdwatchers and photographers would want to rule out is the American kestrel or sparrow hawk, common in the same area and small enough to slightly resemble a mourning dove. I've photographed kestrels in that area, and there are some who have few or no spots on their peachy-colored breasts. However, kestrels have distinct markings on their faces, their beak is that of a hawk and not a pigeon, their wings are light on the underside, their wing feathers are arranged to have uneven edges to muffle the noise of their approach, and they fly like hawks. The bird I saw had wings like a mourning dove or pigeon and flew like a dove or pigeon. It also had dark undersides to its wings as it flew away, apparently the same grayish color as its back. And frankly, I doubt that three swallows would remain on a power line if a sparrow hawk were landing within a foot of them.

Another question that many bird watchers (and others) would ask is, why Pam? If they haven't seen a passenger pigeon in their lifetimes, why would I? Well, I'm a middle-aged woman, and until this summer, I'd never seen one either. Apparently if not extinct, they're still incredibly rare.

Another reason could be that bird photography is one of my main hobbies, and I'm always looking for a good shot or even an adequate one. If I hadn't been willing to photograph yet another mourning dove that day, I wouldn't have even given the larger bird a second look. I also think that I was driving in an area with construction but nobody working there that day, meaning that I was driving more slowly than usual and had time to occasionally glance at items to the side of the road.

There also may be a spiritual side to the sighting. I'd just spent the better part of a day during the July 4th holiday trying to rescue a juvenile seagull whose left wing was dragging on the ground. Despite having the Wisconsin DNR's number saved on my cell phone thanks to reporting for this site, and driving him to a wildlife rehab facility in Green Bay that remained open during the holiday, the gull died of his injuries. Shortly after the gull's death, I noticed that great shots of seagulls were suddenly appearing, as though the birds had been arranged for perfect photos. Normally I don't see many seagulls in the areas where I go birding, yet there they were.

I'd noticed the same sort of thing in previous years after trying to help other birds who later died of their injuries: a yellow warbler, a cedar waxwing, and a brewer's blackbird. I've come to suspect the "lucky shots" I get after their passing are gifts as a spiritual "thank you." The air show also may have given things a spiritual boost, with people like my great-uncle who'd been in the Air Force having passed a few years ago.

... And then the passenger pigeon, within weeks of trying to rescue the seagull.

While the sighting may have been due to any or all of these things, I can't help but wonder if a certain seagull had something to do with this. I'll always wonder if it was a gift from the other side.

Update and a new sighting in 2015
by Pam Rotella
8 July 2015

MARINETTE COUNTY, WISCONSIN - Nearly a year after the original sighting, it's time for an update.

Since posting this article, I've received e-mails from at least two people who also believe that they've seen a living passenger pigeon. I greatly appreciate their willingness to share their experiences with me, and welcome any other information from readers on possible sightings.

Also, I've decided to finally reveal the probable location of last year's sighting. After returning to the few most likely locations, I've found only one with the exact power pole / line design that I remember -- near the intersection of Highways K and E southwest of Ripon, Wisconsin. (Correction: Highway K in Green Lake County becomes Highway KK when the border is crossed into Fond du Lac County, and so this was actually the intersection of highways KK and E in Fond du Lac County.) This is located on the far western edge of Fond du Lac County, as originally reported, but just a mile from the border with Green Lake County. Green Lake County is significant because the last documented living passenger pigeon "Martha" (who died at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens), originated from Green Lake County.

The area is very rural and supports many bird species. It also has good access to water and some forested areas including pine trees. Last year, a portion of Highway 23 was closed, and Highway K was a part of the detour route. Highway 49 north of Horicon Marsh was also under construction, but I couldn't find the exact power pole design that I remembered along that route, although some poles were similar.

I also had a new possible sighting earlier this Spring. The location was Highway E in Marinette County, Wisconsin, south of Porterfield. The area is just as rural as last year's sighting, with many forested areas. The latest location is several miles from Wisconsin's border with Michigan's upper peninsula, Lake Michigan's Green Bay, and the small towns of Marinette, Wisconsin and Menominee, Michigan.

Again I noticed what appeared to be two mourning doves sitting together on a power line at the side of the highway. The sun was once again shining on them like a spotlight, and I noticed that their breasts were a darker shade of peachy red than any mourning dove variations I've seen. But remember that word "possible." Their tummies weren't quite as dark as the previous passenger pigeon spotted last year. The birds' other colors and markings matched passenger pigeons exactly, and they seemed to have a slightly thinner build than mourning doves.

I didn't circle back to attempt a picture because at first I thought they were too small to be passenger pigeons. I reasoned that maybe mourning doves had more color variety than I'd originally thought. However, after using that road a few times since, I noticed that mourning doves on those same power lines appeared to be even smaller than the birds I saw. It turns out that the lines are higher than power lines in other areas where I normally see mourning doves perched by the side of the road. Apparently this time, because I didn't have swallows sitting next to them to estimate their size, I'd underestimated the birds' height.

Why did I decide to reveal the exact locations this year?

I have two different reasons for two different years.

I learned last year at Operation Migration's Whooping Crane Festival that passenger pigeons were known for irregular migration routes and schedules, spending maybe a few days in a single location and then not returning for years, if ever. And so it's unlikely that the bird I saw last year will return to the same area anytime soon.

However, passenger pigeons do stay in one area to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. So why would I reveal this year's sighting, if it's possible that the birds may be a nesting pair hoping to raise a chick in the area?

One reason is that only hard core bird watchers would read this far in this type of article. The other is that I probably won't return to the Marinette area this summer, and want to give other bird watchers and photographers the chance to spot the birds if they're interested. I'd love to see pictures of them, if anyone else can find them.

Now for that Whooping Crane Festival event featuring a lecture on the extinction of the passenger pigeon by Stanley Temple of the Aldo Leopold Foundation. (Notice the graphic of a passenger pigeon on that page -- it has a tummy the same color as the birds spotted near Porterfield this year.)

Temple put together an excellent speech on the passenger pigeon to mark the centennial of its extinction in 1914. He raised a few interesting points about the birds' habits:

1.) Passenger pigeons would fill the skies in huge flocks, following an erratic migration pattern and often only staying in one location for a few days. They might not return to that area for years, if ever. Temple said that this was a good strategy to avoid being hunted by both humans and natural predators, as predators couldn't locate themselves in an area near the pigeon flocks to hunt them regularly.

2.) Passenger pigeons' favorite food was acorns. White-footed mice also love acorns. Without competition from passenger pigeons, numbers of white-footed mice rise when more acorns are available. White-footed mice also happen to carry the tick that hosts the bacterium causing Lyme Disease, and therefore the extinction of passenger pigeons has been linked to the rise of Lyme Disease.

3.) Although passenger pigeons would often migrate from place to place, giving local predators only a short time to locate and hunt them, the birds were vulnerable during nesting season. Usually flocks would build many nests in each tree, with each nesting pair having only one egg / chick per season.

4.) The expansion of the telegraph allowed people to tip off "pigeoners" (pigeon hunters) on flock locations. This made pigeon hunting much more efficient. Train cars were packed with the birds as a source of cheap meat for the cities.

Temple presented many more facts about the birds, but I found these points helpful in explaining some of what I was seeing -- for example, why the birds were found near forested areas (for acorns and possibly nesting sites), or why I've only seen the bird(s) in each area one time only.

I spoke with Temple after his speech, and his thoughts were that the bird I'd seen may have been a domestically-bred pigeon that had escaped or was released into the wild. He said that some private breeders have produced birds that are "extreme."

I appreciate his efforts to find an explanation, and I'm open to the idea that a breeder may have managed to breed a bird that looked exactly like a passenger pigeon, including the larger, more athletic build, but I doubt that theory. If a breeder had invested the time and money to produce a bird like that, why would he then release it into the wild, or allow it to escape, instead of publishing photographs or selling it? For such a bird to have also then lived successfully in the wild sounds even less likely than seeing a living passenger pigeon.

Another explanation could be that any of these birds is a natural variation of mourning doves, but they would be on the far fringes of variation if so. However I think that's unlikely, because the red tummy isn't the only variation -- these birds are also larger with a different build. That's why I still think that these birds were living passenger pigeons, evidence that a few individuals have managed to survive in remote rural areas.

One more point about these sightings, this time a lesson from the endangered species featured at the Whooping Crane Festival -- whooping cranes.

There are only about 400 living whooping cranes in the wild, and until I started birding in areas where the cranes were being reintroduced, I'd never seen one. In areas where they have been reintroduced, like Necedah NWR, White River Marsh, and Horicon Marsh, a sighting is rare.

What this tells me is that small flocks of birds can exist, even when most people don't see them.

Yet just like whooping cranes, if some individuals remain, even if their numbers are in the hundreds, that doesn't mean that they'll be able to maintain their numbers or make a comeback.

Even so, I remain hopeful.

All original content including photographs © 2014, 2015 by Pam Rotella.