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Pink pigeon conservation in paradise

This autumn, Paignton Zoo’s long-serving bird keeper and renowned pigeon expert – Tom Tooley – will be travelling to the tropical paradise of Mauritius to support conservation efforts for the pink pigeon. Pink pigeons are unassuming birds, but they are an incredibly rare species endemic to Mauritius.

In 2014, Tom was first invited to assist the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation’s (MWF) conservation efforts for pink pigeons. The MWF is the largest non-governmental organisation in Mauritius dedicated exclusively to conserving and preserving the nation’s endangered plant and animal species, including the endemic pink pigeon.

Tom’s work included training MWF staff in his special hand-rearing technique to increase the chances of pink pigeon squab survival. He then returned annually for the next four years, ensuring the proper implementation of his method.

This year, Tom is excited to return for the first time since 2018 to train new staff and observe the progress that has been made.

Survival of a species

Pink pigeons (Nesoenas mayeri) are the only surviving pigeon native to the Mascarene Islands (an archipelago that includes the French territory of Réunion, along with the islands that make up Mauritius).

The pink pigeon population faced a critical decline from the 1970s to the 1990s, with only 10 individuals remaining by 1991, leaving the species on the verge of extinction. This steep decline was primarily due to factors such as habitat degradation, the introduction of non-native predators, and wildlife diseases. Currently, only 2% of Mauritius’ original forests remain – dominated by invasive plant species – making it challenging for pink pigeons to find suitable nesting sites and food sources.

Additional threats come from predators like crab-eating macaques, small Asian mongooses, rats and feral cats, while extreme weather events like cyclones further exacerbate habitat degradation.

Thanks to ongoing efforts by a global network of conservation organizations – including the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Wild Planet Trust – the pink pigeon population has shown significant improvement. Supplementary food stations have been established and managed to support their numbers.

While their population remains low, with fewer than 500 individuals as of 2011, this meant that pink pigeons were reclassified, from Critically Endangered IUCN Red List status, to Vulnerable in 2018. This pink pigeon recovery programme demonstrates how zoos and other conservation bodies can work together to save a species.

Tom has worked as a bird keeper at Paignton Zoo for more than 26 years. During this time, he has developed an innovative technique for hand-rearing baby birds (squabs) that have been abandoned or orphaned by their parents. Instead of using conventional crop tubing, Tom’s method involves attaching a carefully sized catheter to a syringe, which is then gently placed on the squab’s tongue. This approach allows the squabs to naturally consume the hand-rearing formula, eliminating the need for crop tubing, which can be stressful and harmful to the birds.

In order to make this method work, Tom was faced with the challenge of finding an appropriate feeding formula, since pigeons naturally provide their squabs with crop milk (an avian equivalent to milk, which contains fat and protein, but no calcium or carbohydrates). To meet this unique dietary requirement, Tom and his team had to source a specialized replacement crop milk feeding formula from Spain.

Combining this technique with the fostering of squabs and hand-rearing of pink pigeons has significantly reduced the risk of losing pigeon squabs. This compassionate and effective approach is helping to ensure the survival of these remarkable birds.

Famous relatives

Perhaps the most famous Mauritian pigeon was the dodo. Last seen alive in 1662, this ground-dwelling pigeon was driven to extinction just 65 years after it was first discovered. Many island birds are endangered today, and for some, it’s fair to say that without zoos, they would already have gone the way of the dodo.

Wild Planet Trust has had links with pigeons since the very beginning. Paignton Zoo’s founder – Herbert Whitley – was also a renowned pigeon expert. In the early days of the zoo, visitors were treated to a vast collection of domestic pigeon breeds. He amassed more than 100 different varieties at the zoo, which was the largest collection in Europe at the time.

When World War II threatened the living collections at what was then called Primley Zoo, Whitley instructed that all of his animals were to go, everything “except the pigeons.”

Tom’s dedication to the pink pigeon’s survival aligns with our wider commitment to help halt species decline, and we are thrilled to be supporting his return to Mauritius and the crucial role he is able to play there. Projects like this help to demonstrate the vital work that zoos and aquariums do to support conservation work, which was recognised recently by international conservation authority, the IUCN.