Reaching the northernmost extent of its range in southern Florida, the White-crowned Pigeon differs from the more common Rock Pigeon by spending most of its time in trees, seldom visiting the ground. White-crowned Pigeons nest in colonies, yet each pair maintains a small territory.
White-crowned Pigeons, with their limited range, are vulnerable to major hurricane events which can have major effects on local habitat conditions. Birds do appear to frequently return to breeding areas in subsequent years.
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Description of the White-crowned Pigeon
The White-crowned Pigeon is a large, dark pigeon with a white crown and pale eyes. Bright white crown patch.
Crown patch can be grayish-white.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles have darker crowns.
Mangroves and island woodlands. In the U.S. found only in southern tip of Florida.
Fruit and berries.
Forages in trees.
Resident in southern Florida, the Caribbean, and parts of Central America.
Habitat loss as well as hunting (outside of the U.S.) threaten the White-crowned Pigeon population.
While they only rarely reuse nests, White-crowned Pigeons do appear to return to the same general area in subsequent nesting seasons.
A loud series of “coos” in given.
- Rock Pigeons lack white crowns.
The nest is a platform of twigs placed on a low branch.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 14 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 21 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the White-crowned Pigeon
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the White-crowned Pigeon – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
COLUMBIA LEUCOCEPHALA (Linnaeus)
The fine white-crowned pigeon is a permanent resident in the Bahamas and West Indies and occurs in the Florida keys as a summer resident only. Audubon (1840) writes:
The White-headed Pigeon arrives on the Southern Keys of the Floridas, from the Island of Cuba, about the 20th of April, sometimes not until the 1st of May, for the purpose of residing there for a season, and rearing Its young. On the 30th of April, I shot several immediately after their arrival from across the Gulf Stream. I saw them as they approached the shore, skimming along the surface of the waters, flying with great rapidity, much In the manner of the common house species, but not near each other like the Passenger Pigeon. On nearing the land, they rose to the height of about a hundred yards, surveyed the country in large circles, then with less velocity gradually descended, and alighted in the thickest parts of the mangroves and other low trees. None of them could be easily seen in those dark retreats, and we were obliged to force them out, in order to shoot them, which we did at this time on the wing.
In creeping among the bushes to obtain a view of them whilst alighted, I observed that the more I advanced, the more they retired from me. This they dId by alighting on the ground from the trees, among which they could not well make way on wing, although they could get on with much ease below, running off and hiding at every convenleat spot that occurred. These manoeuvres lasted only a few days, after which I could see them perched on the tops of the trees, giving a preference perhaps to dry branches, but not a marked one, as some other species are wont to do.
Of their haunts there he says:
The key on which I first saw this bird, lies about twenty-five miles south of Indian Key, and is named Bahia-honda Duck Key. The farther south we proceeded the more we saw, until we reached the low, sandy, sterile keys, called the Tortugas, on none of which did I see a Pigeon of any kind. On our return from the Tortugas to Key West, our vessel anchored close to a small key, in a snug harbour protected from the sea winds by several long and narrow islands well known to the navigators of those seas. Captain Day and myself visited this little key, which was not much more than an acre In extent, the same afternoon. No sooner had we landed than, to our delight, we saw a great number of White-headed Pigeons rise, fly round the key several times, and all realight upon it. The Captain posted himself at one end of the key, I at the other, while the sailors walked about to raise the birds. In less than two hours we shot thirty-six of theni, mostly on the wing. Their attachment to this islet resulted from their having nests with eggs on it. Along with them we found Grakles, Red-winged Starlings, Flycatchers, and a few Zenaida Doves.
The next morning we thought of calling at this little key on our way, and were surprised to find that many new comers had arrived there before us. They were, however, very shy, and we procured only seventeen in all. I felt convinced that this spot was a favourite place of resort to these birds. It being detached from all other keys, furnished with rank herbaceous plants, cactuses, and low shrubs, and guarded by a thick hedge of mangroves, no place could be better adapted for breeding; and, at each visit we paid It, White-headed Pigeons were procured.
On Jamaica, P. H. Gosse (1847) says:
This fine dove is common in almost all situations, but chiefly affects the groves of pimento, which generally adorn the mountain pens. The sweet aromatic berries afford him abundant and delicious food during the pimento season; the umbrageous trees afford him a concealment suited to his shy and suspicious character; and on them his mate prefers to build her rude platformnest and ‘-ear her tender progeny.
Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1916) writes:
The white-crowned pigeon was formerly one of the most abundant species in Porto Rico, but now is found only in a few localities. Gundlach spoke of it as very common in the seventies, but its numbers have undoubtedly greatly decreased. The birds occur mainly near the coast, usually in dense swampy growths, though one was seen near Aibonito; and the few small areas of forest i~emnining in the lowlands may account for their diminution in numbers. Around Punta Picun, north of Mameyes, they were found preparing to breed in th~ swamps, where the growth was so dense that it was hard to get near them. They usually came out into the more open portions late in the evening to feed on the fruit of the icaco (Ckrysobalanus sp.), but even then kept well concealed in the thick leaves.
Courtship: Audubon (1840) describes its courtship as follows:
The White-headed Pigeon exhibits little of the pomposity of the common domestic species, in its amorous moments. The male, however, struts before the female with elegance, and the tones of his voice are quite sufficient to persuade her of the sincerity of his attachment. During calm and clear mornings, when nature appears in all her purity and brightness, the cooing of this Pigeon may be heard at a considerable distance, mingling in full concord with the softer tones of the Zenaida Dove. The bird, standing almost erect, full plumed, and proud of his beauty, emits at first a loud oroohoo. as a prelude, and then proceeds to repeat his coo-coo-coo. These sounds are continued during the l)eriod of incubation, and are at all times welcome to the ear of the visitor of these remarkable Islands. When approached suddenly, it emits a hollow, guttural sound, precisely resembling that of the Common Pigeon on such occasions.
Nesting: The same gifted author says:
The nest is placed high or low, according to circumstances; but there are never two on the same tree. I have found it on the top shoots of a cactus, only a few feet from the ground, on the upper branches of a mangrove, or quite low, almost touching the water, and hanging over it. In general the nest resembles that of the Coiumba mioretoria, but it is more compact, and better lined. The outer part is composed of small dry twigs, the inner of fibrous roots and grasses.
In the Bahamas, according to Dr. Henry Bryant (1861): It breeds in communities, In some places, as at Grassy Kays, Andros Island, ~n vast numbers; here the nests were made on the tops of the prickly pear, which cover the whole kay; at the Biminis and Buena Vista Kay, Ragged Island, on the mangroves; and at Long Rock, near Exuma, on the stunted bushes. I do not think they ever select a large kay for their breeding place.
C. J. Maynard (1896) describes an abandoned nesting colony in the Bahamas as follows:
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 twenty-five feet high. On one of these little keys, which did not contain over an acre of land, there were at least ten thousand nests of the White-headed Pigeon. The rocks were mostly covered with a scanty growth of low hushes and with a bore 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. Unfortunately, however, all of these nests were of the previous year, only a single dove being seen. My boatmen Informed me that this rookery was occupied by many thousand birds during the past year, and that the spongers were accustomed to visit the place at night and capture tbe sitting birds. This statement was confirmed by the remains of torches which wore scattered about the island. Many nests contained eggsheils, the contents of which had been removed by Buzzards, Man-of-war birds or Gulls. The time of this visit was May 8th, 1884.
On the Isle of Pines, W. E. Clyde Todd (1916) says that “the nest is usually built in the top of a royal palm, but along the Los Indios River the birds were found nesting in the mangroves, rather low down.”
Dr. Paul Bartsch writes to me that the nests he found on San Salvador were all placed in mangrove clumps such as are shown in the habitat photograph. These clumps stood out in the lakes at some distance from shore and furnished splendid protection. Furthermore, as a rule, there was a gray kingbird’s nest in the top branches of these clumps, and the kingbird served as an alarmist. The birds xvere exceedingly shy, regardless of whether they were incubating eggs or taking care of young.
Eggs: The white-crowned pigeon ordinarily lays two eggs, but sometimes only one. The eggs are elliptical oval or nearly oval, pure white, smooth, and quite glossy. The measurements of 35 eggs average 36.8 by 27 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 40.2 by 28.4, 39.4 by 29.5, 32.3 by 26.2, and 36.8 by 25.2 millimeters.
Plumages: I have not seen the downy young of this pigeon, but Doctor Bartsch tells me that the down is of a “light buff color.” Audubon (1840) says:
The young birds are at first almost black, but have tufts of a soft buff-coloured down distributed mostly over the head and shoulders. While yet squabs they have no appearance of white on the head, and they take about four months before they acquire their perfect plumage. Smaller size, and a less degree of briliiancy, distinguished the female from the male.
Wilson (1832) says:
The young are distinguished by duller tints, and the crown is at first nearly uniform with the rest of their dark plumage; this part, after a time, changes to grey, then greyish white, and becomes whiter and whiter as the bird grows older.
Gosse (1847) writes of some squabs that he raised in captivity:
Both were exceedingly ugly; long-necked, thia-bodied, the head not well rounded, the fleshy part of the beak prominent, and its base unfeathered. The whole plumage was blackish ash-colored, each feather slightly tipped with paler, and the feather of the head terminating in little curled grey filaments, which added to the uncouth appearance of the birds. In a week or two I perceived these filaments were gradually disappearing, and about the beginning of October the small feathers began to clothe the base of the beak; these feathers were greyish-white, and at the same time the grey hue was beginning to spread up the forehead, I believe, by the dropping of the black feathers and their Immediate replacement by the white ones. About this time also the general plumage began to assume the blue hue of the adult, in patches; and on the 12th of October, I first observed the beautiful iridescent feathers of the neck, but as yet only on one side. These notes refer to the elder; the other was about two weeks more backward. On the 16th, I first heard it coo; for some time It had now and then uttered a single note, but on this day it gave the whole Sary-coat-bluc, but short, and in a low tone; and that only once. By the end of November the white had spread over the whole crown, as In the adult; but was not yet so pure or so smooth.
I have seen several young birds, both males and females, apparently in first-winter plumage, taken at various dates from December 14 to May 16, that had evidently matured more slowly or were, perhaps, hatched later. They all had dull gray or dirty white crowns and were otherwise like adult females, except that they had no scaly markings on the neck; the neck and mantle were dull brown, with darker edgings; the wing coverts and scapulars had narrow light tips. There was a mixture of new plumbeous, adult plumage in the back, and the wings and tail were either molting or had been recently renewed, showing that young birds at least have a complete molt in winter and spring. I have been unable to learn anything about the molts of adults.
Food: Gosse (1847) gives a very good account of the feeding habits of the “baldpate,” as he calls this pigeon; he writes:
When the pimento is out of season, be seeks other food; the berries of the sweetwood, the larger ones of the breadnut, and burn-wood, of the bastard cedar, and the fig, and the little ruddy clusters of the fiddle-wood, attract him. He feeds early in the morning, and late in the afternoon; large numbers resort to a single tree (though not strictly gregarious), and when this is observed, the sportsman, by going thither before dawn, and lying in wait, may shoot them one by one, as they arrive. In September and October they are In fine condition, often exceedingly fat and juicy, and of exquisite flavour. In March the clammycherry displays its showy scarlet racemes, to which the Bald-pates flock. The Hopping Dick, Woodpecker, and the Guinea-fowl feed also upon it. In April, Sam tells me he has seen as many as thirty, almost covering a tree, feeding on berries which he believes were those of the bully-tree. Late in the year they resort to the saline morasses, to feed on the seeds of the black-mangrove, whlcih I have repeatedly found in the craw; I have even seen one descend to the ground beneath a mangrove, doubtless in search of the fallen seeds. In general, however, the Bald-pate is an arboreal pigeon, his visits to the earth being very rare. He often feeds at a distance from home; so that it is a common thing to observe, just before nightfall, straggling parties of two or three, or individuals, rushing along with arrowy swiftness in a straight line to some distant wood.
Doctor Wetmore (1916), on Porto Rico, found that “five stomachs examined contained vegetable matter only, composed of drupes and fruits of fair size. The icaco and berries of various palms (palmo real and iluma) are favorites with these birds, while a tree known as palo blanco (Drypetes sp.) is said to furnish them food in season. No cultivated crop is injured, the bird depending wholly upon wild fruits for its sustenance.” Mr. March, as quoted by Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1905), states that “they commit serious depredations on the Guinea-corn fields, not only by the quantity they devour, but by breaking down the brittle corn-stalks with the weight of their bodies.”
Behavior: Maynard (1896) writes:
The White-headed Pigeons are thoroughly at home among the thick branches of the trees and shrubbery of the Bahamas, moving about among them as easily as do the smaller-perching birds, and they make very little noise. When surprised by an intruder they will remain perfectly Quiet until approached within a few yards, when they will spring rapidly into air, rise to the tips of the woodland, and dirt off with an exceedingly rapid flight; in fact, few, if any birds, can fly any more quickly than do these Pigeons. I have shot several in air, as they rose from the bushes and darted away, but I aever attempted to shoot one as it passed me at full speed at right angles. When dashing along at this headlong speed they ivill suddenly alight upon a branch or on the ground, without the beating or fluttering of the wings, which t~ually attends a similar abrupt stoppage in most birds of a similar size and which Is so noticeable in our domestic pigeon.
Dr. Thomas Barbour (1923) says:
The White-crowned Pigeon is of irregular appearance in any given locality, its presence depending on the abundance of the fruits upon which It feeds. It is essentially a coastal form, and one which is always gregarious. It roosts in great hordes, usually on some mangrove islet, and hands sally forth each morn to feed, returning from their distant foragings at dusk. Then they rush and swirl into the greater resorts, or palomeres, in incredible hosts. Famous roosts are Moraine Cay north of Grand Bahama, where I have shot, and Green Cay, south of Nexv Providence. Gundlach speaks of their seldom being seen in Cuba except when nesting, which they do at various seasons of the year. This intermittent appearance is noticed everyxvhere. They are in the Florida Keys in summer only, hut not every summer in equal numbers; In certain of the Bahamas they abonad at one season, elsawbere at others. The fact is, the Individual bands are capable of long flights, and move far and wide as food supplies dictate. Great numbers are slaughtered by hunters, who build an ambush near roost or rookery and kill the returning birds as they fly in just before dark. Unfortunately, this leaves many young birds to starve.
Voice: Tn addition to the notes mentioned under courtship, I might quote what Maynard (1890) says:
The notes of this Pigeon are very loud and characteristic, sounding something like toof, wof, wo, co-woo. The first three notes are repeated several times, then the co-woo Is long drawn out; all being In as low a key as the hoot of an owl. The entire cry Is cleverly Imitated by the Creoles when they wish to decoy the bird within gun shot, hut there is a certain tremulousness In the real notes which cannot be imitated by the human voice.
Again Gosse (1847) gives a still different wording of it as “8aTycoat-blue, uttered with much energy, the second syllable short and suddenly elevated, the last a little protracted and descending.”
Game: Nearly everyone who has written about the birds of the Bahamas or the West Indies has referred to the white-crowned pigeon as one of the finest game birds on these islands. Its game qualities are excellent, as it is rather wild and a very swift flier; and its flesh is delicious on the table. It was formerly much more abundant than it is now, for it has been shot in enormous numbers while flying to or from its breeding, feeding, or roosting grounds. As the pigeons were shot most easily on or about their breeding grounds, many young were left to starve in the nests and many older squabs were taken for food or to be raised in captivity. With such wholesale slaughter the species is rapidly disappearing and is badly in need of protection. Maynard (1896) relates the following tale:
About the first week in July, previous to 1884, sportsmen from Nassau had been in the habit of visiting Green Key and shooting the breeding Pigeons as they flew from their nests to cross to Andros Island, some fifteen miles distant, where they are said to go daily for food and water. Many of the nests of the previous season which I had examined on Green Key contained broken eggs that contained the remains of half-formed young, and In some of the nests were the skeletons of newly hatched young; the parents of both eggs and young had doubtlessly been killed as they left the nests. This sight was a most piteous appeal to humanity. I was informed by one of my boatmen, who had accompanied hunting parties to the key, that so great was the slaughter of Pigeons that many more were killed than were needed, and that he had frequently seen hundreds of birds buried in the sand of the beach near where they were shot. Upon my return to Nassau I promptly stated the facts as I had observed them to the Governor, Sir Henry A. Blake, and, as I have elsewhere stated In this work, through his ready and sympathetic cooperation a law was enacted protecting these Pigeons durIng the breeding season.
Winter: The wanderings of the white-crowned pigeons have been referred to in the foregoing quotation from Doctor Barbour. These are all winter, or between breeding seasons, wanderings. The birds are evidently absent from the Florida Keys in winter, and Mr. Todd (1916) says of their exodus from the Isle of Pines:
This Is a common species everywhere, except in the Cienaga, appearing in flocks late in February, and remaining until the last of September. Although a few stragglers may be seen through the winter months, the vast majority of the Individuals withdraw at that season from their usual range and accordhag to native report resort to the “south coast,” in great numbers. It is one of the most numerous birds of the various mountain ridges in the interior of the Island during the breeding-season, which begins in May.
This last movement is northward to the larger land area of Cuba, probably to find a better food supply. The birds that breed on the Florida Keys are probably those that migrate northward to the mainland of Florida in winter. Recent information indicates that these pigeons migrate to extreme southern Florida occasionally, perhaps regularly, in winter. Gilbert R. iRossignol writes me that he saw some of these pigeons between Flamingo and Coot Bay five different times between December 30, 1928, and February 24, 1929. He says: “I recall seeing three at one time and a pair here and there between the first and third bridges, but mostly around the second bridge, where there is considerable open country due to some farming and a burnt district.” Frank N. Irving, who was with Mr. Rossignol on some of these trips, tells me that he saw the white-crowned pigeons in the same region during March, 1928, and January and February, 1929. I wrote to Harold H. Bailey for his experience, and he replied that he has taken several on the mainland at Cape Sable and has seen flocks there of 20 or 30 birds, or more, many times; they were feeding in the higher foliage of the Florida holly and other berry-bearing trees. He has not found a nest on the mainland and thinks they come there to feed only and spend the winter near abundant food. He says that a similar movement takes place in the Bahamas, where the pigeons desert their breeding grounds on the outlying keys and come to Andros Island to spend the winter.
Range: Southern Florida, the West Indies, and locally in central Central America.
The range of the white-crowned pigeon extends north to southern Florida (probably Dry Tortugas, Key West, Bahia Honda, Cape Sable, Coconut Grove, and Indian Key); and the Bahama Islands (Abaco Island). East to the Bahama Islands (Abaco, New Providence, Green Cay, and Mariguana Island); and the Lesser Antilles (Barbuda Island and Antigua Island). South to the Lesser Antilles (Antigua and St. Croix Islands); Porto Rico (Vieques Island, Punta Picua, and Mona Island); Haiti (San Domingo and JacmeL); Jamaica (Spanishtown) ; Nicaragua (Great Corn Island); Honduras (Ruatan Island); British Honduras (Half Moon Cay, Turneff Is land, and Belize); and Qaxaca (Sauna Cruz). West to Oaxaca (Sauna Cruz and Tehuantepec); Yucatan (Cozumel Island and Buchotz); and southern Florida (probably Dry Tortugas).
Scott (1889) records a specimen taken at Punta Rassa, Fla., August 16, 1886, and Cory (1891) noted them in the winter of 1891 at Caicos Islands of the eastern Bahamas.
Although given to considerable wandering, the white-crowned pigeon does not appear to have a regular migration, at least in the main part of its range. Audubon (1840) stated that they arrived on the Florida Keys from April 20 to May 1, while Maynard (1896) reported their arrival in this region about the 1st of June and their departure late in October. Some appear to winter regularly in southern Florida.
Egg dates: Bahamas: 48 records, May 21 to December 8; 24 records, June 18 to 29.