With help, the pink pigeon could survive extinction

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While visiting the Black River Gorges in Mauritius in the 1980s, I was shown a bird on the brink of extinction. Fortunately, he survived: one last captive breeding program saved the critically endangered pink pigeon.

With the tender and loving care of the Durrell Wildlife Trust and the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, this elegant rose-breasted bird was brought back from the brink. There are around 480 living in the wild in Mauritius today.

But there is a problem. The authors of a paper, which has just been published, warn that the wild population is becoming so inbred that it risks collapsing unless further action is taken.*

Although adult birds sometimes eat scary critters, pigeons and doves are vegetarians. Parents even feed their chicks protein-rich “milk” produced in their crops.

But life is unfair; these most docile creatures have endured many trials and tribulations. According to the New Encyclopedia of Birds, 11 of the world’s 309 pigeon species are listed as ‘extinct’, with eight of them extinct since 1600. Another 14 species are ‘endangered’ and 34 are ‘vulnerable’.

Doves may symbolize peace and goodwill, and even represent the Holy Spirit in European art, but they have another, less fortunate claim to fame. A species like the pink pigeon, which lived only in Mauritius, was driven to extinction in the 17th century, giving us the expression “dead like the dodo”. The dodo’s close relative, the solitary, which inhabited the neighboring Indian Ocean island of Reunion, suffered the same fate.

Other pigeon extinctions, some might say, were the fault of the bird. Crop raids alienate farmers, while the acid from bird droppings damages the masonry of buildings. Feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square was once a treat for young and old, but the birds have been banned to protect the architectural heritage.

The fate of an American species is particularly tragic. The passenger pigeon was one of the most numerous birds in the world, so abundant that its future seemed quite assured. But the overexploitation for its meat and the destruction of its habitat have had catastrophic consequences. The last carrier pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

“The voice of the dove has been heard in the land,” says the Song of Songs, celebrating sexual love. Alas, the gentle purring of this migrant is rarely heard these days in this part of the world. Doves visit Ireland, particularly Cork, in small numbers. However, they only bred a few times.

Pink pigeon. Image: fauna.durrell.org

We can’t do much to encourage doves to visit, but plans to ‘breed’ the Passenger Pigeon have been mooted. They are far away, but help may be at hand for the pink pigeon.

By using birds living in European and American zoos, a “genetic rescue” could be attempted. By releasing captive-bred individuals, who do not carry the offending mutations, the gene pool could be cleaned up.

There will be difficulties, the scientists admit. Feral pigeons, for example, cannot breed with blow-ins. But if “there are many slips between the cup and the lip”, “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.

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