Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Where have all the pigeons gone?

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Q There are no more pigeons in downtown Pittsfield. Where did they all go? I have been in business on North Street for 44 years and have not seen any for the last several years. I saw one single lonely pigeon in the McKay Street parking garage the other day. What's up?

— Dave, Pittsfield

A Not having a suitable answer to this question, I was put in touch with our State Ornithologist who wrote me the following: "I am not entirely sure what may be causing a drop in the pigeon population in Pittsfield, but I suggest this could be a result of more avian predators moving into urban areas. Over the last several decades raptors of a number of species are increasingly taking advantage or urban habitats for nesting. This is well known for Peregrine Falcons, but is also the case for species like Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, and Merlin. Pigeons are not only a potential prey item, but they may also avoid areas with high numbers of predators. Another possibility is that a predator (maybe mammalian or possibly gulls as is mentioned in the email to you) is keying in on pigeon nests in the area. I have not heard about any large-scale human persecution of pigeons, but as a non-native species they are not provided any legal protection. Disease would be another possibility affecting a local population, but I haven't heard of this being a population-level issue in Massachusetts. The pattern being seen is certainly interesting. Thanks for passing this along." Andrew Vitz, Ph.D., State Ornithologist, Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife

While others have noticed, and have been noticing since the late 1960s, the decline didn't cause much concern. In fact, being a feral species, it has been largely ignored by American ornithologists and bird watchers alike.

The rock pigeon has declined by 46 percent between 1966 and 2015 nationwide according to the Breeding Bird Atlas.

Like other early invasive animals, and plants, it was introduced to North America in the early 17th-century by colonists who brought domestic pigeons to early settlements. One source I discovered says: "The species was first introduced to North America in 1606 at Port Royal, Nova Scotia." Now feral or descendants of the feral population live across the continent into southern Canada and south through Central America, and on into South America.

Apparently getting off to a slow start the species became one of the most explosive of birds to be introduced to our shores!

In Faxon and Hoffman's "The Birds of Berkshire County" (1900), we read, "The European House Sparrow, Passer domesticus, is the only introduced species to become firmly established in Berkshires." The Rock Pigeon isn't included in Hoffman's "Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York" (1904) edition. It is also not mentioned in "Berkshire Birds" by Bartlett Hendricks (1950), who probably didn't list it because it's ancestors escaped or were released, and hence were feral. "The Birds of Massachusetts" (1955) by Griscom and Snyder says, "Now extensively feral almost through the state. For many years a few pairs nested on the sea cliffs at Nahant, some of them closely reverting to the ancestral coloration." In its 1994 the revised edition of "Berkshire Birds" by Hendricks was changed to "Birds of Berkshire County" and the Rock Pigeon was included under the name Rock Dove. In it we read, "Our common pigeons are found about cities and town, around farms and under bridges. There is some indication that they may rarely nest on cliffs, such as at Monument Mountain." The Annotated List of the "Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts" (2017) by David P. St. James (1948-2014) lists it as the Rock Pigeon and "found commonly throughout the state."

Perusing "Christmas Bird Counts" by local birders we discover Rock Dove/Pigeon in 2016/17 counts revealed in North Berkshire (N.) 238; Central Berkshire (C.) 260; South Berkshire (S.) 211. Looking back at 2005/6, N. 295; C. 330; S. 278. And in 2002/3, still higher numbers, N. 741; C. 841; S. 444.

Red-tailed hawks, falcons, owls, cats, humans and even rats and possums prey upon pigeons. Snapping turtles have been known to kill them too, although that may have little bearing on this particular discussion.

Also afflicting this species are numerous parasites and diseases including Histoplasmosis, something I had contracted and attributed to a pigeon I had handled after learning of deterioration of my eyesight due to this blood disease. Sometime earlier while employed at The Berkshire Museum as educator and naturalist, a young boy brought me a very sick pigeon that I said I would take care of for him. I did and foolishly handled it while humanely dispatching the bird without rubber gloves (no disposable latex gloves in common use back then). Several years later I was at The Boston Retina Clinic.

I would very much like to hear from readers, on both sides of the state line, your ideas on the pigeon population. I have not noticed any recently, but then I have not been specifically looking for them.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.      


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