White-crowned pigeon (Patagioenas leucocephala)

Synonyms: Columba leucocephala
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderColumbiformes
FamilyColumbidae
GenusPatagioenas (1)
SizeLength: 33 cm (2)
Weight260 g (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The most distinctive feature of this species is its white-topped head, hence the name ‘white-crowned’ pigeon. Slightly larger than the average ‘city’ pigeon, the body of this species is slate-blue in colour (2) (3). The crown can be used to distinguish between the sexes, as the male’s crown is distinctly white, whereas the crown of the female (and of juveniles) is greyish-white (4). The bill is red with a white tip, the legs are reddish-pink (5), and the wings are blunt-tipped (4). The voice of the white-crowned pigeon is high-pitched and sounds strangely like the words ‘who took two’ (6). 

The white-crowned pigeon occurs in the Caribbean, where its range extends from the southern tip of the Florida mainland and Florida Keys, through the Bahamas and Greater Antilles to the northern Lesser Antilles, and along the coasts of Yucatán (Mexico), Belize, Honduras and Panama (7). The largest numbers of this species occur in Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Antigua (8).

The white-crowned pigeon favours two types of habitat, roosting on offshore mangrove islands and foraging in humid evergreen or semi-deciduous forests on the adjacent mainland (5) (8). This species prefers mangrove islets to coastal mangrove forests because there are fewer predators, such as the raccoon, its primary predator (5). 

The white-crowned pigeon feeds primarily on fruit (4), particularly on the fruits of the poisonwood tree (Metopium toxiferum), strangler fig (Ficus aurea), short-leaf fig (Ficus citrifolia) and blolly (Guapira discolor), although it has also been known to occasionally consume insects and small snails (5). Although often seen flying alone, feeding usually takes place in small groups, and this acrobatic bird sometimes hangs upside down while plucking fruit from the crown of a tall tree (4). 

The breeding season of the white-crowned pigeon typically occurs between May and September, although this varies depending on the availability of food and location (3). The nest of the white-crowned pigeon is often situated in a tree or bush in a mangrove, and is little more than a loose platform of twigs (7). Breeding usually occurs in colonies, although sometimes a pair may nest in isolation (5). Commonly, one or two glossy white eggs are laid, and the male incubates the eggs during the day while the female undertakes this task at night (5). Hatching after 13 to 14 days (7), the young are initially fed a diet of crop milk and nothing else for several days. Fledging usually occurs after two to three weeks (5). When food is abundant, the white-crowned pigeon may breed as many as four times in one year (3).

Habitat degradation and deforestation are the greatest threats to the white-crowned pigeon (7) (8). Across the Caribbean, forest in which the white-crowned pigeon once foraged has been cleared for charcoal production and agriculture. For example, 98.5 percent of forest has been lost in Haiti and 75 percent has been lost in Jamaica (7). This species’ breeding habitat has been equally affected, with mangroves in many areas being destroyed for tourism development and the development of shrimp farms (7). Poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum), one of the pigeon’s primary food sources, is also being removed in Florida as it can result in extreme dermatitis (skin rash) in humans (8).

Hunting is another threat facing the white-crowned pigeon. It is an important game species throughout much of its range, and although hunting of this species is now illegal in the Bahamas, illegal hunting continues to take place (8). Other threats facing the white-crowned pigeon include collisions with man-made objects, a major cause of deaths in Florida (8), and the use of pesticides on many Caribbean Islands (3) (8).

The white-crowned pigeon is protected from hunting in the United States (5), and measures to reduce hunting pressure in the Bahamas have been in place since 1987; this includes a limit on the number of pigeons that can be shot and a shift in the hunting season so as not to coincide with this species’ breeding season (3) (7).

Although not currently the focus of specific active conservation work (8), the white-crowned pigeon will benefit from a number of more general conservation projects within its range. These include the ‘Trees for Tomorrow’ project in Jamaica, started in 1992, which aimed to decrease habitat loss and encroachment into national parks, and the establishment of Caye Caulker Forest Reserve in Belize, which protects important mangrove habitat (7).

There are a number of measures that have been proposed to conserve the white-crowned pigeon, such as discouraging the removal of poisonwood in Florida, and the enforcement of hunting laws. The protection of important breeding and foraging sites is also vital (8).

To learn more about the white-crowned pigeon see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Maehr, D.S. and Kale II, H.W. (2005) Florida's Birds: A Field Guide and Reference. Second Edition. Pineapple Press Inc, Florida.
  3. National Audubon Society (August, 2010)
    http://www.audubon.org/
  4. Dunne, P. (2006) Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
  5. Scott, C. (2004) Endangered and Threatened Animals of Florida and their Habitats. University of Texas Press, Texas.
  6. Latta, S.C., Rimmer, C. and Keith, A. (2006) Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  7. Wells, J.V. (2007) Birder’s Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  8. BirdLife International (August, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=2475&m