Ruth Smith: The end of the passenger pigeon


Anniversaries are worth celebrating, but next month marks the 100th anniversary of a somber event. Martha, the last known passenger pigeon was found dead in her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo, Sept. 1, 1914. This is perhaps the only extinct creature for which we know the date and time of its vanishing. However the passenger pigeon, also called the wild pigeon, had been gone from the wild since 1900.

Losing this bird might not seem like much. We still have healthy populations of mourning doves and rock pigeons, and out west the band-tailed pigeon, a close relative of the passenger pigeon. But those species cannot compare to the beauty or impact of the bird also called the blue pigeon.

Writings by John James Audubon give a hint of what witnessing them was like. Audubon described an experience he had in Kentucky in 1813 watching a flock of passenger pigeons: "The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose."

He went on to describe the flock as a solid undulating mass like "the coils of a gigantic serpent."

Other 19th-century eye witnesses describe flocks that were a mile wide and 300 miles long.

In addition to the unimaginable number of these birds, their beauty was unlike any pigeon we've seen. Their neck and back feathers were iridescent, vacillating from azure to copper depending on how the light hit them.

The pigeons were 15 to 16 inches long, about 50 percent larger than mourning doves. They ranged throughout North America, east of the Rockies from Texas to northern Canada. Their breasts were large because of the muscles used for rapid and long flights. They could fly between 60 and 70 miles per hour to cover long distances between feeding and nesting territories.

The huge flocks moved based on food, migrating into forested areas laden with acorns, beech nuts, chestnuts or berries. When they had devoured the food within the square miles of their roosts, they took flight en masse to invade a new region.

Passenger pigeons were colonial birds, requiring a large number of their kind in proximity in order to breed. Accounts of 100 or more nests in a single tree were common. This was one cause of their demise. Even when their numbers were in the thousands, the flocks had diminished to the point where nesting success dropped drastically.

The primary reason for their extinction though, was overhunting. Often cited as the most numerous bird species on Earth, with populations estimated to be several billion at their peak, they were an easy target. Hunters shooting randomly into a flock could bring down hundreds. When industrial-scale hunting took hold, nets were used to capture thousands at a time.

Advanced killing techniques were aided by faster communication and transportation. Telegraph messages notified hunters of approaching flocks so they could prepare. Trains enabled tons of the birds to be shipped into cities where they were sold for food. A whole industry developed around the pigeon slaughter, until it collapsed with their diminished population.

Toward the end, only small groups were seen. A naturalist in central New Hampshire recalled a day from his youth in the mid 1880's when a neighbor "pointed out to me some passenger pigeons, then on the verge of extinction... I still remember those three birds flying swiftly high up in the northwest."

We have no chance of seeing even three of these birds flying again, but museums across the country are marking this centenary with exhibitions about the passenger pigeon. Some of them have taxidermy mounts of pigeons so visitors can see what they really looked like.

If you have a chance to gaze at a mounted passenger pigeon or even a picture, remember the words of Aldo Leopold: "There will always be pigeons in books and museums ... but book pigeons cannot clap their wings in thunderous applause."

Then go out and clap your hands in thunderous applause for the living birds and wildlife and do what you can to keep them from the fate of the passenger pigeon.


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