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The Sad Story of Passenger Pigeon

The Sad Story of Passenger Pigeon

The sad story of Passenger Pigeon reminds us no matter how superabundant a species is, excessive hunting, habitat destruction, technological development and lack of enforcement of wildlife laws can wipe it out within half a century.

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, leading a flock of passenger pigeons
Martha, the last passenger pigeon, leading a flock of passenger pigeons, painted by John Ruthven. This painting has been reproduced by artworks in mural form to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Martha's death in 2014. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

By Mithu Das   November 18, 2015

When European settlers killed the last Dodo in Mauritius in 1662, another bird of her same family (Columbidae)—the Passenger Pigeon—with their large numbers was just beggining to astonish colonists in America. Jamestown in Virginia, the first permanent English settlement—after surviving the bitter cold, diseases, hunger and attacks by the Native Americans—had completed fifty years by this time. Huge swaths of land was occupied by these settlers who had soon engaged themselves in agriculture, fishing and hunting. Needless to say, when Europeans first landed in America, they were totally surprised to see the great abundance of wildlife here—from fish in the water, mammals on the land to birds in the sky. However, no other animal like Passenger Pigeon and bison, with their incomparably large numbers, had able to capture the imagination of the colonists.

In 1662 a man from Ontario wrote in his diary: ''Among the birds of every variety to be found here, it is to be noted that pigeons abound in such numbers that this year one man killed a hundred and thirty-two at a single shot. They passed continually in flocks so dense, and so near the ground that sometimes they were struck down with oars.''

John Josselyn, the famous English traveller, who made two voyages to New England in 1638 and 1663, wrote in his book 'Account of Two Voyages': "The Pidgeon, of which there are millions of millions, I have seen a flight of Pidgeons in the spring and at Michaelmas when they return back to the Southward for four or five miles, that to my thinking had neither beginning nor ending, length or breadth, and so thick that I could see no Sun, they join Nest to Nest, and Tree to Tree by their Nests many miles together in Pine-Trees. But of late they are much diminished, the English taking them with Nets. I have bought at Boston a dozen of Pidgeons ready pull'd and garbidgd for three pence."

Explorer, naturalist John Lawson—when he went on an expedition to the Indian villages in North Carolina in 1700—wrote in his journal how 'at that time of the year, the flocks of passenger pigeons, as they passed by, in great measure, obstructed the light of the day.'

Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm, when he traveled through America, wrote: ''The Birds spend the entire summer in Canada, and particularly do they nest in the vast wild forests and wastes which abound there, where no men are to be found and where seldom any human being ventures. When in the summer a person travels through these forests he might easily be terrified by the enormous number of these birds, which in some places almost entirely cover the branches of the trees and, when taking wing obscure the sky''.

It was estimated that in the early of the Nineteenth Century more than five billion passenger pigeons lived in North America, which had comprised 40 percnt of the Continent's bird life. According to several European accounts, the pigeons had been usually seen in large numbers during migration period. In 1860, W. Ross King had probably witnessed the largest flight of passenger pigeons. King, a naturalist and sportsman, wrote in his book: "Early in the morning (at Fort Mississauga, Ontario) I was apprised by my servant that an extra- ordinary flock of birds was passing over, such as he had never seen before. Hurrying out and ascending the grassy ramparts, I was perfectly amazed to behold the air filled, the sun obscured by millions of pigeons, not hovering about but darting onwards in a straight line with arrowy flight in a vast mass a mile or more in breadth, and stretching before and behind as far as the eye could reach. Swiftly and steadily the column passed over with a rushing sound, and for hours continued in undiminished myriads advancing over the American forests in the eastern horizon, as the myriads that had passed were lost in the western sky. It was late in the afternoon before any decrease in the mass was perceptible, but they became gradually less dense as the day drew to a close. At sunset the detached flocks bringing up the rear began to settle in the forest on the Lake-road, and in such numbers as to break down branches from the trees. The duration of this flight being about fourteen hours, viz. from Early References 21 four a.m. to six p.m. The column (allowing a probable velocity of sixty miles an hour, as assumed by Wilson), could not have been less than three hundred miles in length, with an average breadth, as before stated of one mile."

Joel Greenberg in his famous book 'A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction' (2014) pointed out how researchers tried to figure out the total number of pigeons that took part in that largest flight. "A. W. Schorger, assigning two birds per square yard and a speed of sixty miles per hour, concludes that the flight involved an amazing 3,717,120,000 pigeons." Surprisingly, when scientist from Indiana University Northwest created a graph based on King's description, they were also able to find the same figures Schorger had found.

Now the question is: How a species, whose numbers counted in billions and billions, could be extinct within a century? According to Birdlife International, the exact cause is still not known but excessive hunting and habitat clearance are the two major factors that drove the pigeons to extinction. Moreover, the proliferation of the rail network and telegraph system which enabled hunters to find new nesting colonies and the transport of young birds to market and Newcastle disease are two other important factors.

Human beings destroyed passenger pigeons almost every time they encountered them, and they used every imaginable device in the process. Joel Greenberg
Passenger pigeon flock being hunted. Author: The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
"Passenger pigeon flock being hunted." Author: The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

There may be other reasons behind the extinction of passenger pigeon—as scientist wanted to claim—but apparently, reckless hunting was one of the major causes and nobody can deny it. Passenger pigeons were fairly abundant and probably relatively safe before Europeans landed in North America. Although the tasty meat of the pigeons had long been known to local Indians who hunted them regularly; but unlike Europeans, Indians never killed these birds unnecessarily or for commercial purposes.

Europeans started to kill passenger pigeons for food as well as to protect their grain fields from the attack of the pigeons. Many European accounts revealed the ruthless, wholesale killing of the pigeons at that time. Here is a description from LaHontan's letter dated May 28, 1687: "In a word, we eat nothing but Water-fowl for fifteen Days; after which we resolv'd to declare War against the Turtle-Doves, which are so numerous in Canada, that the Bishop has been forced to ex- communicate 'em oftner than once, upon the account of the Damage they do to the Product of the Earth. With that view, we imbarqued and made towards a Meadow, in the Neighborhood of which, the Trees were cover'd with that sort of Fowl more than with Leaves: For just then 'twas the season in which they retire from the North Countries, and repair to the Southern Climates; and oine would have thought that all the Turtle-Doves upon Earth had chose to pass thro' this place. For the eighteen or twenty days that we stay'd there, I firmly believe that a thousand Men might have fed upon 'em heartily, without putting themselves to any trouble."

And here is another account written by John Bradbury in 1810: "........soon discovered that pigeons were in the woods. I returned and exchanged my rifle for a fowling piece, and in a few hours shot 271, when I desisted."

John Howison in his book Sketches of Upper Canada (1822) wrote how he observed 'immense flocks of the passenger pigeons, frequent this and other parts of Upper Canada during the spring and autumn; and myriads of them are killed by firearms, or caught in nets by the inhabitants; for they fly so close, and in such numbers, that twenty or thirty may sometimes be brought down at a single shot.'

There were many such accounts written by so many people who had vividly described the slaughter of passenger pigeons carried out by human beings for more than two centuries. Famed ornithologist and painter John James Audubon had also witnessed one such brutal incident when he was encountered with one of the largest flocks of passenger pigeons near Ohio river in 1813. Audubon mentioned the whole incident in his journal as follows: "Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Har-densburgh fifty-five miles. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys. Incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed. For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons, and talked of nothing but pigeons. The atmosphere, during this time, was strongly Impregnated with the peculiar odor which emanates from the species."

When an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone.John James Audubon
Passing as a Thought
"Passing as a Thought" painted by John Ruthven. Courtesy of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

For today's standard it could be totally unbelievable when we hear how people's brutality sent passenger pigeons into oblivion. People killed the pigeons—and they killed them using every imaginable divices and methods that one had to be seen to be believed it—they killed them with guns, sticks, clubs, oars, and nets; throwing stones and other missiles at the flying birds; catching live birds by feeding them corn soaked in whiskey; cutting down or burning the nesting trees to collect the live squabs; asphyxiating the pigeons by burning sulfur underneath nests; and worst of all, they used cries of live pigeons, whose eyelids were often sewed up, and fastened the birds on a movable stick, chair or stool to entice other pigeons into nets (and probably from this method came the words 'stool pigeon' in English?).

Researchers found that despite millions and millions of passenger pigeons had been killed for over two centuries, there were still billions of pigeons living in North America in the mid-nineteenth century. But after 1850s—when railway lines and telegraph wires started to cover most parts of America—the killing of pigeons suddenly increased manyfold. People were now able to communicate by telegraph and cross long distances by train to chase the pigeons and hunt them in nesting sites. They used trains to transport the birds—thousands of barrels full of pigeons—to the market every day. Greenberg mentioned in his book about Jennifer Price's compelling vignette of how a pigeon from Sparta, Wisconsin, would get to a restaurant table in New York City in 1871: “One might well begin with an eight-mile wagon ride one morning from the northwest edge of the nesting to the Sparta rail depot. The squab is packed in a barrel of ice and shipped on the 3:00P.M. Milwaukee–St. Paul express train to Milwaukee and then south to Chicago, where the barrel is transferred to the Chicago, Burlington & MO express train to New York City. A driver for the American Merchant’s Union Express picks up the barrel at Grand Central Station and delivers it to a game dealer, who has purchased the pigeons from a Chicago dealer on commission."

The commercial hunting of passenger pigeon started just before the mid-nineteenth century which, according to many researchers, led the species to extinction. The professional hunters, who called themselves pigeoners, killed thousands of pigeons every day and sent them to the market by train. The pigeons were sold in various towns in America and their prices were ranged from fifty cents a dozen in Chicago to $1.30 in Boston and $1.60 in New York. In 1878 refrigirated railroad car was first used to deliver the pigeons from one place to another. Sadly, in the same year, as hunting for sale continued, the population of passenger pigeons reduced to mere 10 millions and by 1889—as all the major nesting sites had been destroyed—there were only 5000 pigeons remained in the wild. Absurdly, people still did not stop killing the pigeons nor they had ever tried to save the last surviving ones. And in 1900 the last wild passenger pigeon was killed by a 14-year-old boy in Ohio.

Scientists want to say, passenger pigeons would have probably survived if we did not destroy their nesting grounds. "If you're killing a species far faster than they can reproduce," says Stanley Temple to Audubon Magazine, "the end is a mathematical certainty." Evidence suggests that when passenger pigeons were still alive, people hardly talked about how to save the birds, instead they talked how to kill them and cock them. Pigeon meat was becoming a part of their daily diets. Many people stopped eating pork and other meat and started to live on pigeon meat. A lot of pigeon cookbooks had also been written, some of which were sold a great number of copies. ''The pigeons were roasted, stewed, fried and made into soup," writes someone in his cookbook. "Young squabs were fried in their own fat. When the birds were plentiful the breasts only were used, and were prepared in various ways, sometimes fried in deep fat. Another method was to roll them in clay and bake them.''

Besides hunting, habitat destruction is another factor that drove the passenger pigeons into extinction. Since white people settled in America, huge swaths of forest land had been destroyed for agriculture and townships, which made many species vulnerable but severely affected the pigeons. It was estimated that 'between 1850 and 1910 around 180 million acres of forest land were cleared for farming alone'.

After the last wild passenger pigeon was killed in 1900, there were still a few dozens survived in the aviaries and zoos. Unfortunately, after a few years, these pigeons also started to die, one after another, due to illness or old ages. Martha the last passenger pigeon died in 1914. Read about Martha.

A pair of Passenger Pigeons by John James Audubon.
A pair of Passenger Pigeons (female above, male below), painted by John James Audubon. Courtesy:; the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove; and the Montgomery County, Audubon Collection.

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