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The Largest Pigeon in the World – The Victoria Crowned Pigeon

Monday, 4 June 2012

Due to the demise of the Dodo, the mantle of the world’s largest pigeon was passed on to the Victoria Crowned. If you associate pigeons with the types that we see in our cities and towns – altogether a pretty unimpressive lot – then you are in for a surprise.

The first reaction to this bird is usually exclamatory. What? You mean that is actually a pigeon? Put simply, this bird is a stunner – and if you are used to English vernacular you may well associate those words with scantily clad ladies on the third page of some tabloid newspapers. This bird has made the news recently, however, in as much as several breeding programs throughout the world have met with success and have managed to breed these beauties.

Depending on your taste, this picture will probably produce one of two responses – ‘ew’ or ‘aw’. This baby Victoria Crowned Pigeon was born two years ago in Saitama Children’s Zoo in Japan. This adds to the chick that was hatched in London Zoo in September 2009. There has also been a birth in San Diego zoo. A much lauded breeding program may very well save this massively endangered species from extinction – and who could possibly want it to go the way of its cousin, the Dodo? However, one reaction, with apologies to the character Shug from the Color Purple movie is ‘you sure is ugly’.

But look what this ugly ‘duckling’ will grow in to. Resplendent in their gorgeous blueness, the Victoria Crowned Pigeon is – it must be said – a bird of significant beauty. Where do they come from? Which far flung corner of the globe do they call home? They come from the lowland forests and swamps of New Guinea and a few of the islands off its coast. They, like the Dodo, live on the ground and they mostly eat fruit such as figs and seeds that they forage for much as our town pigeons do, only with much more grace and aplomb. They will also go for the odd invertebrate too but that is about as large as its food gets. Unlike our own pigeons, though, they generally only lay one egg – which is one reason the species is in a spot of bother.

It is difficult to get a proper idea about the size of these birds from photographs, but even though the Dodo was much, much bigger than them, their vital statistics are still pretty impressive. The largest examples can grow up to seventy centimeters in height – which is the same height as a turkey. In fact, when asked which bird family the Victoria Crowned comes from, most people would probably hazard a guess at the turkey. No relation, though. Thousands of miles and several continents separate the two.

It is named – as you probably suspect, after Victoria, the long lived monarch of the United Kingdom who died in 1901. There are two sub-species which look similar, but the Victoria Crowned remains the largest. However, the very crown on its head is what led to plummeting numbers in the wild. These feathers – so it seems – make very fine decorations for the people of New Guinea and as such they have been extensively hunted so people can look good on a Saturday night. Unfortunately for them, they are quite tasty too – and one of these birds will make a substantial dinner for a large family.

Another reason for the loss of numbers in the wild is the fact that as our own species has grown and expanded it has forced its way in to the forest and swamps that previously the Victoria Crowned Pigeon called home. A final nail in the coffin is the fact that the bird is pretty much tame – it will happily walk up to people (and even pose for photographs) without a glimmer of fear. This naivety of our own species’ proclivities has meant that many a Victoria Crowned has ended up in the cooking pot – curiosity killing the pigeon rather than the cat in this instance. So it may well be, as with so many other species, that captive breeding programs may be the only way to ensure its survival. Shame.

Have you ever blown over the top of a glass milk bottle? If so you know the noise – deep, sonorous and reminiscent on occasion of accidental flatulence. If you are familiar with this noise then you have a fair representation of what the call of this bird sounds like. When they display – and this is where they lift up their wonderful crown in all its exquisite glory – they make a sound which corresponds to ‘boom-pa’ – with one or two exclamation marks at the end for good measure.

This immense call should, it is hoped, secure the male a mate and when he finds one, it’s a love story for life. They lay once a year – and as we have already noted it is usually just a single egg. When the chick is born it is helpless and requires around the clock attention from its parents. When birds do this they are known as altricial but after around thirty days the chick will look like an adult but will only be one third of the size (and of course its crown will not be fully developed. Yes, OK, let’s cue another one of those ‘aw’ moments – here you go.

So, here is an odd fact. Birds, it is generally known, do not produce milk for their young. Well, pigeons – as well as flamingos – do. The milk has a fairly similar composition to that which mammals produce to feed their own young. They do not have mammary glands, however. The milk is secreted from their crop – of both male and female. In the first all important days after the chick has hatched it is this milk that will sustain it, meaning that the parents can remain close and does not have to go off foraging for food.

It can only be hoped that this species will be able to survive and go on to thrive in the future. The thought of a solitary example of the species, the last of its kind, surveying its dwindling habitat in the futile search for a partner, is not something most would like to imagine. So, good luck to the Victoria Crested Pigeon, may you not go the way of their long since extinct cousin, the Dodo.

First Image Credit Diver Dewan 15

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