Are Plain Pigeons island-hopping across the Greater Antilles? What the observations of a group of traditional hunters might tell us about the movement patterns of Caribbean birds

By Lydia Gibson

Ah new species dis?!’ exclaimed a traditional hunter, whose 45-year hunting history had never seen him face to face with the pigeon he had just caught. I had been following the group for the past three summers as part of my doctoral research on forest use in the Cockpit Country. While I have witnessed the group of hunters capture (and lose) many a white-crowned, and the occasional ring-tailed, pigeon, this as a first for me as well.

The plain pigeon (Patagioenas inornata; Near Threatened) is found across the Greater Antilles, with reports of sightings as far afield as Florida. There are three subspecies:

  • Cuban plain pigeon (P. inornata inornata); nominate (original population)

  • Puerto Rican plain pigeon (P. inornata wetmorei); found across Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti). Is darker than nominate with whiter edges on wing coverts

  • Jamaican plain pigeon (P. inornata exigua). Is darkest of all subspecies with white eyes rimmed with red orbital ring.

Read more about plain pigeon morphology

Based on the descriptions, the hunters (unsurprisingly) came across a Jamaican subspecies, but given CC is one of the subspecies strongholds, why is this their first encounter?

The plain pigeon is a multiple-brooded habitat generalist who nest year-round. They are found mainly in second-growth dry forests; however the Jamaican and Puerto Rican subspecies have been reported to exhibit edge-preference, nesting, foraging and roosting near roads and mangroves (Rivera-Milán et al., 2003; Strong and Johnson, 2001; Yahner, 1988). Changes in habitat preferences have been linked to weather conditions, food availability, and hunting pressures (Rivera-Milán et al., 2003; Rivera-Milán et al., 2016). Some scholars have suggested that the Jamaican subspecies are difficult to find because of possible extirpation (Miymoto at al., 1994), while others suggest that the decreasing population is the result of decrease in fruit crops leading them to use lowland forests around the island as feeding sites only in the nonbreeding season (Strong and Johnson, 2001).

Unlike the ring-tailed pigeon, the white-crowned and plain pigeon are found across low elevations (Strong and Johnson, 2001). The recent summer droughts in 2018 and 2019 may have pushed the plain pigeon to higher altitudes and deeper into the forest core, presenting it to the hunters for the first time. That week, the hunters also caught two hybrid black-billed parrots, whose red lores potentially signal hybridization with a Greater Antillean Amazona spp. (such as the Puerto Rican parrot A.vittata). The hunters’ novel catches could be the result of columbiform and psittacines from across the Greater Antilles using the relatively verdant Cockpit Country as a “food court”. It could also be the result of pressures internal to Jamaica – increased hybridization with introduced species and shifts in species’ range. Our forthcoming black-billed parrot project which includes GPS tracking to establish the movement patterns of endemic birds, might shed some light on this conundrum!

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