The Expressions of Emotion in the Pigeons (1909–11)

In a series of three in-depth articles, the American psychologist and behavior scientist Wallace Craig (1876–1954) examined the “voice and manners” of blond ring doves, mourning doves, and — in the concluding article featured above — the already-extinct passenger pigeons. In addition to being a thinker-up of great titles (“The Voices of Pigeons regarded as a means of Social Control” being another), Craig had a talent for attending closely to our avian neighbors.

At the time Craig wrote this piece on the passenger pigeon, it was still not clear whether the bird was extinct. (Unfortunately, it was.) But he believed that, even if it were, it was “equally important to publish whatever is known of its voice, as a matter of permanent record”, especially regarding its distinct voice and “prodigious gregariousness”.

The delights of the text are many. For example, Craig’s meticulous notes on the bird’s “bearing”: “Ordinary walking pace of male, 12–13 steps in 5 seconds.” “In eating, female pecks at rate of about 12 pecks in 5 seconds on an average, and as head moves through considerable arc, its motion is very quick. The mumbling of each seed, also, is very quick.” “Especially active and noisy in early morning.”

Equally engaging are the categories Craig comes up with to give a sense of the bird’s emotional behavior, including enmity (the male passenger pigeon was “a particularly quarrelsome bird, ever ready to threaten or strike with his wings… and to shout defiance in his loud strident voice”), fear, and alarm.

But Craig’s ear for pigeon talk is unparalleled. The Kah and the Coo (common to all pigeons and doves) were accompanied, among passenger pigeons, by the “copulation-note”, “the keek”, “scolding, chattering, clucking”, “the vestigial coo or keep”, and “the nest-call”.

As soon as we are about to despair that, however well Craig describes them, we will never be able to hear these unique cries, we turn the page and find he has created musical notation imitating many of these calls, including those made when “alighting on a perch among a lot of other birds” or fighting, talking “masterfully, toward female” or “gently, toward mate”.

Those who dismiss all pigeons as “sky rats” may be surprised to read about the elaborateness of their emotional lives and mating rituals. (“When the female becomes amorous, instead of edging away from the male when he sidles up to her, she reciprocates in the ‘hugging’, pressing upon the male in somewhat the same manner that he presses upon her.”) Certainly, Craig makes clear what a complex creature the world lost when the last passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction around the turn of the last century. His manner of writing about the bird is downright personal, and we believe him, at the end of the article, when he tells us all its “peculiarities seem to hang together, making a consistent character.”

Read below the two previous articles in Craig's series — the second part on the mourning dove in the same 1911 issue of The Auk, and the much longer first part on the blond ring-dove from two years earlier in a 1909 issue of The Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology.

Wallace Craig, "The Expressions of Emotion in the Pigeons. II. The Mourning Dove (Zenaidura macroura Linn.)", in The Auk, Vol. 28, 1911, pp. 398–407.

Wallace Craig, "The Expressions of Emotion in the Pigeons. I. The Blond Ring-Dove (?Turter Risorius)", in The Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, Vol. 19, 1909, pp. 29–82.

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