This vulerable species from Mauritius is making a comeback
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A pink pigeon might sound like fake news, but it’s a real bird from Mauritius, and it’s very rare. The species was almost driven to extinction in the 1980s and by 1990 only nine individual pink pigeons remained in the wild. However, under the close watch of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, its numbers have increased and it’s now doing well with 473 individual birds in the wild. To put this in context, all other pigeons from the Mascarene Islands have become extinct, making the pink pigeon, a very special survivor.
The decline of pink pigeons began with the arrival of humans in Mauritius, who destroyed the bird’s habitats, cutting down native vegetation until only 1.5% of the original, good-quality forest remained. This forced the pigeons into confined spaces in upland forests. But the destruction didn’t end there. People hunted the birds for meat, then introduced other predators, like cats, crab-eating macaque, mongoose, and black rats, which threatened the birds’ survival. Non-native plants were introduced — they invaded the little habitat that was left, choking native plants and preventing regeneration of woodlands, so by the mid-1970s, there were just 20 birds living in an area known as Pigeon Wood. By 1986, there were 12 pink pigeons left. Five nesting attempts were recorded, but they were thwarted by rats. By 1990 only nine birds remained.
The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation was determined to save the species. In 1976 they set up a captive conservation and breeding program, supported by organizations across the world. The first wild releases took place in 1987. There are now small populations near to the original nesting site, Pigeon Wood, within the Black River Gorges National Park. Their terrain is spreading, and there are sub-populations in the nature reserve island Ile aux Aigrettes, which is free from predators.
Two more sub-populations are being created at Ferney and in Chamarel Ebony Forest. Captive-reared birds will bolster the numbers of wild populations, and for genetic diversity, conservationists encourage the birds to move around to different territories. The bird is now listed as ‘vulnerable’.
In 1997 Cotswold Wildlife Park in Oxfordshire UK joined the European Breeding Programme to ensure a viable captive population of pink pigeons in Europe. They have since become one of the most successful breeders.
Keeper Chris Kibbey said, “We got our first pink pigeons in 1997. They bred for the first time in 1999 and we used barbary doves to foster rear. Pink pigeons don’t always make the greatest parents in captivity. By placing pink pigeon eggs under barbary doves (who are much better at rearing young in captivity), more chicks survive.” Keepers had a particularly good year in 2008, breeding eight pink pigeons, and in 2016, three pink pigeons hatched at the park. Another two chicks hatched in 2017 — the latest brood. Chris says, “In total, we have successfully bred 23 pink pigeons and we currently have six.” In time, pink pigeons from the European Breeding Programme will be sent to Mauritius to increase genetic diversity among the wild population.
Monitoring progress in Mauritius
Every pink pigeon bred in captivity in Mauritius is ringed so they can be identified and their progress monitored. Nests are monitored. Wheat and cracked maize is a supplemental food provided at each of the field sites because their natural tendency to forage for fruits is hindered by human destruction of forests and feeding grounds.
Conservationists endeavor to remove or control predators around the field sites, and they’re researching and fighting diseases, especially trichomonosis, which can kill pink pigeon chicks. Eventually, they hope to restore large areas of forest to provide safe nesting sites and plentiful natural food sources, with fewer predators.
Birds from captive populations across Europe have genetic variations, which are no longer found in the wild populations. Some of these will join the wild birds in due course. Research is ongoing and the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation hopes to achieve 600 wild pink pigeons in the next ten years.
In 2015, pink pigeons made headlines in the UK, when flamingo-pink pigeons appeared in Bristol, Northumberland, Buckinghamshire, and Dorset. Some people thought a magician had been dying birds for a show. Others speculated that the birds were eating something pink.
As sightings continued, people suggested they might be cousins of the Mauritius pink pigeon, who’d either migrated here or escaped from a private collection. However, experts quickly rebutted that idea, saying the pink birds looked nothing like the Mauritius pink pigeon.
It turned out that people were dying pigeons pink. A man came forward to admit to dying his homing pigeons because he believed the color would deter predators. The Royal Society for the Protection for Animals said it was cruel and unnecessary, so he promised not to do it again.
Occasionally people may dye birds for weddings and ceremonies, which could explain other sightings.
Originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.