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The Passing Of The Passenger Pigeon

July 2024
13min read

These wild birds once inhabited North America by the billions. Yet in three centuries they were exterminated by “civilized” man

On September 1, 1914, a bird named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. In covering the news of the day the New York Times devoted half a column to the change in the name of the Russian capital from St. Petersburg to Petrograd and equal space to a defeat of the New York Yankees by the Detroit Tigers. Most of the first three or four pages were, of course, filled by news of the great war that had just begun: me Allied armies were lulling back toward Paris before the initial German offensive; a “daring aeronaut” from Germany had dropped lour bombs upon the French capital; and the American colony led by the American ambassador was petitioning the United States government to protest this inhuman innovation in the conduct of war. There was nothing about the death of Martha at the age of twenty-nine. And yet her demise was the final event in the history of a slaughter as massive in the annals of the animal kingdom as the slaughter then beginning in France was to be in human history. For Martha was the last of the passenger pigeons.

When the first European settlers arrived in the New World, the passenger pigeon in all probability out-numbered any other species of bird in the world. At that time it was found throughout the forest that covered eastern North America, breeding in the North and wintering in the South. It lived in flocks at all seasons, and these flocks were of such magnitude that nowhere had anything resembling them been seen before.

It requires an effort, and is perhaps impossible, to visualize the passenger pigeon’s numbers even from the circumstantial accounts that have come down to us. In the vast tract of hardwoods that extended over Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, some of the nesting sites were three miles wide and thirty long. From descriptions of the density of the nests, which sometimes numbered as many as one hundred to a tree, it has been computed that one such zone of ninety square miles must have contained fifty-seven million birds. The scenes presented by these nestings stupefied all who beheld them. James Fenimore Cooper, groping for words adequate to the spectacle, wrote that he was reduced to silence by “admiration of the works of the Creator.” In any case, he added, speaking would have been futile since human voices were inaudible in the pandemonium of the pigeons.

Unlike the notes of most other pigeons and doves, which are soft and muted, the cries of the passenger pigeon were loud, shrill, and scolding. Presumably, like the human city-dweller, it had to speak loud and often to gain a hearing above the din created by its fellows. Travelers approaching a nesting site would begin to hear the clamor at a distance of several miles and once upon the fringes of the flock had to bawl into one another’s ears to be understood, while their horses were terrified by the noise. As the squabs grew to maturity, danger was added to bedlam: branches breaking under the weight of the birds might kill anyone upon whom they fell. With the departure of the pigeons, a scene of weird devastation remained. Every plant was killed. Droppings to a depth of several inches covered the ground, which was further littered with limbs; for miles upon end the forest would appear to have been struck by a violent hurricane. In their winter roostings, the birds were packed even more densely. Describing one of these roosts in the South, an English traveler in 1819 declared that within a circumference of four to six miles the trees were bent and broken under the hosts of pigeons “piled upon them like swarming bees.”

Yet even such scenes were hardly to be compared with those that met the gaze of the awe-struck early Americans when in the spring the flocks gathered in the South, and the tremendous movement northward began. It was from these mass migrations that the bird derived its somewhat peculiar name, “passenger,” meaning a bird of passage.

It is legendary that the flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky. This seems to have been the literal truth. In addition to obscuring the sun, they were said to have created “a wind and rushing sound like that of the greatest cataracts.” Alexander Wilson, the Scottish ornithologist who came to America in the early years of the past century at about the same time as the more famous Frenchman, John James Audubon, wrote of his first encounter with a migrating flock of passenger pigeons that he took the “sudden rushing roar, succeeded by instant darkness,” for the winds of a tornado.

Later, Wilson had a chance to estimate the size of one of these flocks, a column he saw passing between Frankfort, Kentucky, and what was then the territory of Indiana. “If,” he wrote, “we suppose this column to have been one mile in breadth (and I believe it to have been much more) and that it moved at the rate of one mile in a minute, four hours, the time it continued passing, would make its whole length 240 miles. Again, supposing that each square yard of this moving body comprehended three pigeons, the square yards in the whole space, multiplied by three, would give two thousand, two hundred and thirty million, two hundred and seventy-two thousand Pigeons.”

Even conceding Wilson’s reputation as a careful observer, is it possible to credit this astronomical figure? Three pigeons to a square yard sounds like an exaggeration, but probably Wilson meant not only a square yard but a cubic yard, or more. Moreover, the passenger pigeon seems to have flown in very dense formation. There are many stories of the numbers that could be brought down by flailing a long pole in a low-flying flock, while one man has recounted how, finding such a flock bearing down upon him, he had to fall upon his face to escape having his eyes put out by the rain of winged projectiles above his head.

Accepting the figure of three birds to a cubic yard, how much faith may we place in Wilson’s estimate of the flock’s speed? Many observers, including Audubon, who himself estimated the size of a flock he beheld at over one billion, spoke of the passenger pigeon as flying a mile a minute. The speed of birds in the past was often overestimated, but Audubon offers supporting evidence. He recorded that passenger pigeons killed in New York had been found to have crops filled with rice they could not have eaten north of South Carolina. At the bird’s high rate of metabolism, he computed that the flight must have been made in six hours or less, which would not have been possible at a speed under sixty miles an hour.

Perhaps there are errors in these statistics. Nevertheless, the domesticated homing pigeon has been clocked at a speed of a mile a minute, and the passenger pigeon, with its wild vigor, its beautifully proportioned, tapering lines, and its exceptionally powerful wing muscles, was undoubtedly a faster bird. Enormous speed and endurance were, indeed, essential to the survival of its legions. The congregation of fifty million birds in a single nesting area over a period of five or six weeks would obviously deplete the food supply for scores of miles around. The passenger pigeons, having to feed not only themselves but their lusty young, did in fact clean huge areas of forest bare of berries and nuts, especially of acorns and beechnuts. While feeding, the flock rolled over the forest like a tremendous wheel, the last ranks always in process of flying over their fellows on the ground and settling at the head of the procession. Such was the strength of instinctive communal discipline that no pigeon, it was said, would rise and fly ahead of the flock until it found itself at the very tail. As the nesting season progressed, the birds would of course have to go farther and farther afield, until at the end flocks were reportedly forced to make round trips of two hundred miles or more—and to make them at a prodigious speed in order that the young might not want for food.

Wilson believed the flock he saw near Frankfort to have been much greater than his estimated total. If, as seems likely, this flock actually included upwards of two billion, that would mean, on the basis of modern computations, that it contained about one-fiftieth of all the birds in the entire world! At the very least, according to a conservative estimate, the passenger pigeon flocks represented from twenty-five to forty per cent of the bird population of the United States. We may realize in some degree the abundance that America offered our ancestors if we reflect that all the ducks and geese surviving on the continent by 1947 (taking the figures of the Fish and Wildlife Service) would, if added to that one flock of passenger pigeons, have increased its numbers by only two per cent.

Those who witnessed the maneuvers of these winged hosts were left breathlesss. Wilson observed that “the whole, with its glittery undulations, marked a space on the face of the heavens resembling the windings of a vast and majestic river. When this bend became very great, the birds, as if sensible of the unnecessary circuitous course they were taking, suddenly changed their direction so that what was in column before became an immense front, straightening all its indentures, until it swept the heavens in one vast and infinitely extended line.” Audubon declared: “I cannot describe … the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions.” He added that in “almost solid masses they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.”

Those who knew the passenger pigeon best spoke as feelingly of its superiority of form and bearing as of its numbers and impetuosity on the wing. One whose knowledge of pigeons is derived only from the ever-familiar domestic breed, a descendant of the Mediterranean rock dove, can have no idea of the passenger pigeon’s reputed style. Photographs show it tapered at both ends, like a bobbin, with its long, pointed tail accounting for nearly half its length, which was between sixteen and seventeen inches. It measured about two feet between the tips of its similarly tapered and pointed wings. The mourning dove, which is still common over most of our country, presents a fair approximation of the passenger pigeon’s outlines. It is, however, a much smaller and in every sense more pallid bird. The male passenger pigeon had a rich bluish-slate back and a “wine-colored” or “reddish-fawn” breast with sheens of golden bronze and purple bronze on the sides of its neck. The female was less vivid. Set in the characteristically mild physiognomy of a dove, its eyes, as described by Wilson, were “brilliant, fiery orange.”

The passenger pigeon had many appealing qualities. According to Audubon, the males, belligerent in defense of the nests, were exceptionally affectionate with their mates and shared equally in the care of the young. It is also said that the birds would adopt and feed nestlings whose parents had been killed. The characteristic sometimes known as a sixth sense was developed in an unusual way in the passenger pigeon. When a nesting area had been selected, flocks would stream to it from all quarters, directed there by a mechanism as unerring as it was uncanny. Wilson is authority for the statement that, more mysteriously still, when a migrating flock was jumped by a hawk, its evasive movement would be repeated by succeeding groups, as if each were following a trail plainly marked in the air.

The passenger pigeon had one other noteworthy characteristic. It was edible.

Before the settlement of America, it was customary for villages of Indians to camp on the outskirts of the nesting areas and feast upon the squabs for a month or more at a time. According to an early traveler, Indian villages of no more than seventeen houses would be found to have on hand a hundred gallons or more of pigeon oil or fat, which was used as butter. An account of the hunting of pigeons written by a botanist in the 1740*8 contains the significant statement that the Indians would not allow the molestation of the parents while the young were dependent upon them, “pretending that it would be a great pity on their young, which would in that case have to starve to death.”

The white man brought to the New World a different set of values and different weapons. As early as 1672, there appeared this ominous statement by a New England settler: “But of late they [the pigeons] are much diminished, the English taking them with nets.”

Not only nets, but all conceivable methods of killing were employed both in the breeding colonies and winter roosts and by every village and farm through which the migrating flocks passed in spring and autumn. It is abundantly testified that the sprayed pellets from one blast of a fowling piece might bring down from ten to one hundred birds, so dense were the flocks. In netting, advantage was taken of the pigeons’ craving for salt at the end of the breeding season. Salt or salted mud was spread upon the area over which the net was to be dropped, or, on the New England coast, nets were spread above the salt springs. In the latter case, as many as 1,500 pigeons could be trapped at one time. It was customary for farms to keep captive a pigeon whose eyelids had been sewn up or whose eyes had been put out. These blinded birds served as decoys, their cries bringing the wild migrating flocks to alight where the nets had been set.

The whites joined the Indians in camping at the nesting sites. Not content with the slow process of dislodging the squabs with poles, however, the whites cut down the trees and took the dead away by the horse-load. Unsatisfied even by these returns, they resorted to a method of mass-butchery that left no room for improvement. Approaching at night, the hunting parties would set fire to the grass and under-brush in a circle around a portion of the nesting colony. The pigeons, driven out of their heads by panic, would dash into the conflagration and be roasted alive. The next morning they would be gathered from heaps two feet deep.

While the pigeons flocked in an area, they were served on every table, in every town, on every farm, in every inn. They were eaten, as Wilson wrote, “until the very name became sickening,” and more were salted away. Early records state that wild pigeons were a staple of the poor. Their importance to the economy of the young colonies must have been incalculable.

The slaughter appears to have proceeded over the years at an ever-accelerating pace. Yet Audubon, after describing one of the scenes of carnage, wrote that “persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease.”

The destruction of our forests would have indeed reduced the flocks that in Audubon’s lifetime frequently took three days to pass. It is also undeniable that in reading the stories of the prodigious hordes of these birds and of the damage they inflicted upon themselves when the limbs of trees torn loose under their weight would smash to death the birds on lower branches, one has a feeling of something unreal and impossible about these multitudes. It seems outside the scheme of nature for any species to achieve a position of such dominance, to teem in such billions that self-destruction is an inevitable consequence.

Even without the agency of the white man, it is possible that in time something would have occurred to scale the passenger pigeons’ numbers down—the increase of natural enemies, the development of parasites, or epidemic disease. But obliteration was certainly not marked out for the species by any process of nature, or even rendered inevitable by the fate that befell the forests the pigeons inhabited. There would seem to be no reason why the passenger pigeon could not have survived in flocks of thousands in the woods that yet remain, and it might, like many other birds of the wilderness, have adapted itself to civilization if it had been given a chance.

Audubon did not foresee the rapid growth of our cities and the extension of the railroads that gave men access to the hinterland. It was these developments, and the attendant appearance of the professional pigeon trapper, that raised the tempo of the slaughter to its highest pitch. The climax came in the 1870’s, when it was estimated that several thousand trappers were devoting their full time to the destruction of the pigeons, following them from one nesting to another—these in addition, of course, to the unnumbered thousands who simply killed pigeons whenever opportunity offered.

It was in this same period that the massacre of the bison took place. Between 1869, the year the Union Pacific’s transcontinental line was completed, and 1883, the third year after the completion of another transcontinental line by the Northern Pacific, the number of bison was reduced from an estimated five million to 740. The slaughter of the fur seal began at the same time and in the end left but 200,000 of the original herds of over three million.

In those days the market stalls of every city and town were piled high with game—and game then included not only bison, deer, elk, pigeons, grouse, turkeys, ducks and geese, and other waterfowl, but also robins, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, and other songbirds, some of which, like the bobolink, were shot by the tens and hundreds of thousands. Everything that flew or that walked on four feet was killed for the table, for its fur or feathers, or for fun.

Although the day was to come when over two thousand dollars would be offered in -vain for the discovery of a nest or colony, there were times in the past when passenger pigeons sold for a penny a bird or even three pence a dozen. One person remembers having been offered for a penny as many birds as he could carry away. When human appetites were glutted, the pigeons were fed to dogs and hogs.

With the growth of large cities, however, the profits of the trade were assured. Schooners were loaded in bulk with squabs for New York from a breeding colony in the Catskills; one record speaks of fifteen tons of ice being required for packing. From 1866 to 1876, ten million birds were shipped each nesting season from the great mid-western flocks, in addition to those consumed locally. Since these were brooding birds, fully half as many young were left to perish in the nests, while countless wounded birds were invariably left behind by the hunters to die a lingering death. The flocks sought new nesting grounds in vain; the pigeoneers hunted them everywhere.

The peak of the slaughter was reached in 1878 with the eradication of the mighty colony at Petoskey, just south of the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan. According to one account, five freight-car loads of pigeons left from the town every day for thirty days.

From then on, the decline of the passenger pigeon was precipitous. It is accounted for not only by the slaughter of the adults and marketable squabs and the starvation of the smaller young but also by the total disruption of the breeding cycle of the species. Following the Petoskey massacre, the major remaining flocks appear to have sought refuge in Manitoba, where, however, their numbers diminished rapidly. The effect of late snowstorms upon their nesting may have been a factor in their disappearance there, which was complete by the 1890’s.

The last large nesting was in Grand Traverse County, Michigan, in 1881, and probably included a million birds. The nesting took place in a birch woods, and Chief Pokagon of the Michigan Indians described in the reminiscence he wrote how the dry bark of the trees was ignited, and the birds perished in the roaring, leaping flames. In addition to the larger number killed in this fashion, twenty thousand were trapped and sent to Coney Island, where, weakened by confinement, they were released to be shot down in a trap-shooting contest.

This kind of sport was apparently too much for public opinion even in those days. Laws against molesting the birds at their nesting sites had been on the books in various states since 1862. These, however, were honored more often in the breach than in the observance.

The truth was that there were not many more left to kill. Yet still the profiteers of the pigeon trade shouted down the appeals for more forceful protective legislation made by a minority who were appalled and sickened by the fury of the slaughter.

The bison was saved on the brink of extinction through the preservation of captive herds. The passenger pigeon could likewise have been saved, for it bred readily in captivity, but only a few pairs were kept alive, and these proved insufficient to start a self-perpetuating flock. The legend of its inexhaustibility doomed it. No one upon seeing his last wild passenger pigeon dreamed that he would never see another. In every locality it was supposed that the pigeon had simply moved elsewhere.

The last scattered shipments of pigeons to the markets took place in 1893. They amounted to a few thousand birds. It was at the headwaters of the Au Sable River, in the north-central part of the Michigan peninsula, three years later, that Pokagon, himself the last of the Potawatomi chiefs, found the last breeding colony—a few dozen pairs. In his account of the species, Pokagon included a sentence that may serve as its epitaph: “It was proverbial with our fathers that if the Great Spirit in His wisdom could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form, and movement, he never did.”

The distracted flocks that remained had broken up into small bands or scattered pairs well before the century’s end. A few apparently survived for a number of years. The ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush noted several more or less authenticated records of wild passenger pigeons in the early years of the twentieth century: 140-odd in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1902; one at Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1904; one on the Black River of Arkansas in 1906; one at St. Vincent, Quebec, on September 23, 1907.

All of these, of course, were killed.

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