Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes Migratorius) were once so numerous that by some estimates they outnumbered all the rest of the birds in North America combined. The swift birds were capable of flying in excess of 60 miles per hour, and frequently migrated hundreds of miles in search of suitable grounds for nesting and feeding. Yet their speed and mobility were no match for the advancing settlers of 19th-century America. In less than a century, the most numerous bird on the planet was completely eliminated from the wild by a ruthless campaign of eradication.
The story of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is a dark one. It is a tale, like that of the American Bison, of the dangers of uncontrolled hunting and wanton extermination. It also chronicles the expansion of a new nation, the limitless vision of the Victorian Age, and the conquering of the American wilderness. But sadly, it mostly details what happens when a species that is uniquely and exquisitely adapted to its environment meets a predator equally well adapted to slaughter.
When the first European settlers arrived at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, it is believed that between 3 and 6 billion Passenger Pigeons darkened the skies over eastern North America. This vast host was supported by nearly continuous chestnut, birch, oak, maple, and pine forests the size of Western Europe. The pigeons feasted on the bountiful nuts of those trees and nested in their thick branches.
Passenger Pigeons were unique in the world not only because of the vast numbers, but also because of the manner in which they roosted, nested, flocked, and migrated. The great American naturalist John James Audubon wrote this account of the passing of a flock of what he later estimated to be more than 1 billion pigeons in the Fall of 1813:
“As I traveled on, the air was literally filled with pigeons. The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses.Before sunset I reached Louisville, Kentucky. The pigeons passed in undiminished number, 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 flew lower as they passed over the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed. For a week or more, the population fed on no flesh other that of pigeons, and talked of nothing but pigeons.”
Passenger Pigeons seemed to have evolved a survival strategy based on predator satiation. The birds nested in the northern forests each spring and summer where a pair would raise just a single offspring each mating. After a few weeks of continuous feeding, the parents would force their fattened youngster (called a squab) from the nest to the ground where it remained until first flight a few days later. In a large colony, hundreds of millions of squabs littered the forest floor helpless to their many predators. But the local populations of foxes, wolves, bears, boars, birds, snakes, rodents and other creatures that feasted on the squabs could eat only a small fraction of the squabs before they flew away. The next year, that colony would find a different nesting site: the Passenger Pigeon was the most ephemeral of prey.
The gigantic colonies may have moved from site to site not because of predators, but because of their effect on their nesting and roosting grounds. Larger colonies covered anywhere between 30 and 850 square miles. Descriptions of those sites indicated that nearly every tree in the area supported a nest, and some had as many as 500 nests. Under such weight tree branches collapsed and trunks more than 2 feet in diameter were snapped off at the base. The droppings of the birds blanketed the forest floor and killed the understorey. Even the most productive forests could support such a brood for a few months at most.
Their prime food source were the plentiful acorns, chestnuts, beech nuts, and hickory nuts that littered the forest floor. But as their forests were logged to provide land and timber for the rapidly expanding US population, they became agricultural pests, and their slaughter was officially supported by local, state, and federal governments. Not that folks needed much encouragement. Eastern palates had developed a taste for the cheap and plentiful pigeon meat; and Southern slaves, when they received any meat at all, were almost exclusively given pigeon. Their feathers stuffed pillows and mattresses and were used for decoration and fashion. And of course the pigeons were shot for sport, both in the wild and in carnival booths where the docile birds proved easy targets.
It didn’t take long for a group of professional pigeoners to emerge that helped meet the vast demand for pigeons and their fatty squabs. These men—whose numbers are estimated to have been between several hundred and a few thousand—tracked the nomadic pigeon colonies across the US. Later in the century, they made use of the fledgling telegraph technology to locate their swiftly-traveling prey.
Their tactics were brutal but efficient. Boys used long sticks to knock the birds and their young from nests where they were then clubbed as they rained down. Fire and sulphur were used to suffocate the birds as they roosted. Live pigeons with eyes sewn shut were also used as decoys to attract other pigeons (they were called “stools”, hence the phrase “stool pigeon”). Of course the shotgun was an ever-popular option. One published account quoted a man who recalled shooting blindly into a tree at night and collecting 18 birds. Migrating flocks provided a steady stream of birds that flew so close that 50 could be brought down with a single blast. When the bounty proved too much for a single man or even a single town to use, hogs were loosed to clean the ground of dead pigeons and helpless chirping squabs.
The pigeons were killed where they nested, where they roosted, where they fed, and as they flew. They were pursued and harried from town to town and state to state. By the mid 19th-century their numbers had noticeably declined, and by 1880 commercial hunting was no longer profitable. But because of the peculiar habits of the Passenger Pigeon, hunting proved easy and plentiful right until the end. Indeed, their final big season was to be their most successful ever.
In the summer of 1878, the last large breeding colony of Pigeons arrived near Crooked Lake in Petosky, Michigan. The flock covered 40 square miles and for three months yielded over 50,000 birds a day to hunters. One hunter reportedly killed 3,000,000 of the birds and according to one account earned $60,000—more than $1 million in today’s dollars. All told, between 10 and 15 million birds were dressed, packed for sale, and shipped out of Petoskey that summer. Estimates of the total number slaughtered vary widely but agree that the harvest rate was upwards of 90%. Though moderate-sized colonies nested in Michigan in 1881, the bird was never again spotted in that state after 1889.
In 1896, the last remaining flock of Passenger Pigeons settled down to nest. All 250,000 were exterminated in one day by sportsmen who gathered to kill what was advertised as the last wild flock of the birds. Fully aware of the rarity of the species, a 14-year-old boy in Ohio shot the last wild pigeon in the spring of 1900.
All efforts at breeding in captivity failed. The Passenger Pigeon reproduced slowly, had odd mating habits that prevented crossbreeding, and were seemingly incapable of breeding within their species outside of large colonies. One by one, pigeons in captivity died without producing offspring. Finally on September 1st, 1914 the last Passenger Pigeon fell off her perch and died. Martha had lived to be 29. She was frozen in ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington where she was skinned and stuffed. She remains there on display. Reports of sightings continued into the 1930s, but despite hefty rewards, none were confirmed.
Though it was a shameful deed, it was more than simply human hunting that doomed the Passenger Pigeon: it was our very presence. Its cousin, the Mourning Dove, is better adapted to living with humans and is so numerous that 30 million are killed each year with little threat to the remaining 400 million. The unfortunate truth is that had the Passenger Pigeon not been hunted to extinction, it probably could not have survived without the vast forests that supported its great colonies. Those forests no longer exist, and though they are growing back in some areas, they are much smaller and more fragmented. It seems that the Passenger Pigeons are no more compatible with modern man than were the forests that they called home.