Breeding Band-tailed Pigeons: a glimpse into the future of passenger pigeon de-extinction

By September 16, 2015De-Extinction, Passenger Pigeon

Ben Novak and Paul Marini

The biggest challenges facing The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback will be obtaining germ cell cultures, engineering cells and birds), and then breeding and raising passenger pigeons that will survive and flourish in the wild. The underlying element to these challenges is handling live birds. As our project now is completing genome sequences and beginning to assess the mutations we will engineer into living band-tailed pigeons we face our biggest obstacle – establishing a research flock of pigeons for the purpose of recreating the passenger pigeons.

Mid- 2014 our project gained a new advisor and project volunteer, Paul Marini, a retired commercial geneticist with many years of experience raising domestic pigeons.  December 2014 he began a pilot study breeding band-tailed pigeons, which has now given us the information we need to design the bird facility needs of the next phases of passenger pigeon de-extinction.  Handling the birds gave this pigeon veteran, in his own words, quite the experience:

“Wildness, domestication and tameness are words that are kicked around when talking about man’s interaction with nature, particularly when the interaction is with birds and small mammals.  We so desire acceptance by our pets and adoptees that to be rejected is often hurtful.  That is how I came to view my relationship with the band-tailed pigeons I cared for as part of my involvement with Revive and Restore as it works towards ‘de-extincting’ the passenger pigeon . . . . . . .  when I came to care for my band-tails I expected them to react as normal pigeons.  And yet, from the first day till the last day I had them under my care these birds remained wild and unapproachable-as wild as they day they arrived, frustratingly uninterested in a [human] relationship.

“And yet, these same birds reacted as predicted to the use of artificial lighting as a means of increasing egg production for this seasonal breeder.  By manipulating their day length (as if they were chickens or turkeys) we were able to increase egg production five-fold and to get these eggs beginning in January instead of April as is the case in the wild.  So, they remained wild and elusive, fixed and unalterable in their behavior, but they responded to lighting as we desired.  Our foundation’s goal was achieved while my frustration continued.  Details of how we manipulated their daylight and day length can be found in a companion piece.  It is dry science but should be of great interest for our fellow bird husbandmen.”

Being able to breed band-tailed pigeons year round, especially without negatively effecting their behavior and quality of living, is a huge milestone for moving forward with passenger pigeon de-extinction. We’re gaining the insights we need to properly care for the birds we need in our project. Observations of the birds have shown that they prefer high nesting platforms as opposed to the breedin boxes that domestic pigeons use. The birds do best when breeding pairs are separated or given space, while domestic pigeons can be housed in bred in large numbers in small communal spaces. Despite these differences the breeding cycles, and therefore offspring production, appear to be nearly the same – a positive note for moving forward.

The wildness of band-tailed pigeons, even after having been bred in captivity for several generations, is a major benefit to the future of wild passenger pigeons. In historic records passenger pigeons were noted for their wildness and preference for forests over man-made environments. It seems that we have selected the right species to recreate the passenger pigeon:

” There is no doubt in my mind that introducing passenger pigeon genes into the band-tailed genome will not result in tame birds that would easily be ensnared by men.  These birds will fly far and free from the moment of release and take a place in their surroundings far from man.  I am thankful for that as I feared that these birds would be attracted to buildings and therefore cities and places of human habitation.  I predict they will remain creatures of forest and field and will want to occupy the highest boughs of the tallest trees.  So says I, one who was sure they would succumb to my years of experience and empathetic ways with pigeons.”

View & Download “Effect of controlled lighting on BTP breeding” (PDF 131Kb)