Twenty white-crowned pigeons, hatched and raised at Cayman Turtle Centre aviary, took flight into the wilds of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park Tuesday morning.
The Turtle Centre began breeding pigeons after 2004’s devastating Hurricane Ivan which threatened the survival of the species locally.
“We wanted to release them into the best possible area, where no one can harass them and where they can find the best spots to forage for food and more places to shelter,” said Geddes Hislop, curator of terrestrial exhibits and education at the Cayman Turtle Centre.
He said the botanic park has pristine forest with trees on which the birds are accustomed to feeding, including seagrape, silver thatch, red birch and others.
“The white-crowned pigeons are considered a keystone species in the Cayman environment because they are seed dispersers. A lot of the trees that are native to the island, they spread their seeds around the forest and help them to germinate,” Hislop said.
He said people know these birds as ‘bald pates’ and were accustomed to shooting them for sport, up until 2018.
“The reduction of birds by the  hurricane, plus the added pressure of sport shooting, is what have put these birds in trouble and has made them a threatened species,” he said.
A lot of the birds were rescued after the hurricane, he said. Some were released and some were put into the aviary at the Turtle Centre to help replenish the population.
At the centre, the birds are kept in an isolation enclosure at the back of the aviary, where they go through quarantine and health protocols monitored by vets. That isolation period helps to desensitise the birds to humans, as well as transition them from eating commercial foods to wild foods. Branches are also hung so they recognise the trees and their fruit, Hislop said.
Since 2018, more than 100 white-crowned pigeons have been released into the wild, he said.
Carolyn Smith, the Turtle Centre’s marketing manager, said more releases will be made in the future, adding, “We hope that more people recognise their importance to the environment, specifically as a local species in Cayman.”