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White-crowned Pigeon
Patagioenas leucocephala
Order
COLUMBIFORMES
– Family
COLUMBIDAE
Authors: Bancroft, G. Thomas, and Reed Bowman

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Introduction

White-crowned Pigeon, adult; Key West, FL; April
Figure 1. Distribution of the White-crowned Pigeon.

This obligate frugivore reaches the continental United States only in the Florida Keys and the southern tip of mainland Florida, where it is a sought after specialty by many birders. A large pigeon with a distinctive white crown and slate-gray back, the White-crowned Pigeon is often skittish but does become habituated to humans, feeding around hotels and in suburban back yards. Its distribution centers in the Bahama Islands and Greater Antilles, but populations extend east into the Lesser Antilles and west along the Caribbean coast of Mexico and Central America.

This pigeon needs two distinct habitats for survival: islands and forests supporting fruiting trees. It nests semi-colonially on nearshore islands or in forests near foraging areas and then flies in conspicuous flight lines to hardwood forests to feed. Individuals feed extensively on the fruits of a number of hardwood trees; the timing and intensity of fruit production influence the timing and intensity of nesting. Variation in timing of nesting among localities and years appears to be related to the types of fruit available and their quantity. Nesting success, generally low, is higher in years with more abundant fruit. Predation of eggs and nest-lings appears to be a key factor influencing production of young.

This bird is threatened throughout its range because of habitat loss and hunting. It is an important game species in many areas outside the United States, where timing of hunting seasons and regulation of bag limits often influence the size of populations and where illegal harvesting of squabs and shooting of nesting adults may limit reproductive success. Destruction of breeding areas has decimated numbers in some places; for example, in the U.S. Virgin Islands populations have virtually been eliminated through destruction of nesting habitats. In other areas, clearing of feeding habitats has greatly reduced its food supply.

The tight relationship between the population status of this bird and the state of the ecosystems that support it makes the White-crowned Pigeon an interesting subject for study. The importance of this relationship was highlighted in a symposium hosted by the Bahamas National Trust in the 1970s (Bahamas National Trust 1977). The distributional status of the species was reviewed in the 1970s (Arendt et al. 1979) but needs to be reassessed. Ex-tensive work on parental nesting behavior and vocalizations has been done in Puerto Rico (Wiley and Wiley 1979). Details on nesting phenology and success are available for Puerto Rico, southern Florida, and Cuba (Wiley and Wiley 1979, Bancroft et al. 1990, Godinez 1992). The relationship between fruiting and nesting has been studied in southern Florida (Bancroft and Bowman 1994, Bancroft et al. 2000). For the future, more work on the demography of this bird is critical, especially identifying critical nesting and foraging habitat. Understanding the migratory patterns of populations needs work; we still do not know where large nesting populations go in winter nor how this varies within and among years. More study is needed on the role of this species as a seed-dispersal agent and on identifying key food items and what factors affect the ecology of these plants. Development of a workable, comprehensive conservation strategy for this pigeon, and the habitats that support it, depend on finding answers to all these questions.