In memoriam: The passenger pigeon

“When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and earth must pass before such a one can be again.” —William Beebe

Soon after Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency, he instigated the first real conservation movement in this country by calling a conference of the state governors to announce his plans to conserve the natural resources of the country. TR had been appalled by the demise of the buffalo and other species, but, unfortunately, his actions in starting the conservation movement were too late to save the passenger pigeon.

When the European settlers first came to this country, the number of passenger pigeons was in the billions and was greater than the combined individual numbers of all other birds. Yet, by 1900, this elegant bird was all but extinct. The last one (affectionately known as Martha) died in captivity in the Cincinnati zoo in 1914.

One of he first settlers in Virginia wrote, “ There are wild pigeons in winter beyond number or imagination, myself having seen three or four hours together flocks in the air, so thick that even have they shadowed the sun from us.” John J. Audubon reported a migrating flock he observed in Kentucky in 1813 that was so great in number that it darkened the skies for three days. Up until the middle of the 19th century, similar descriptions of the vast number of passenger pigeons are recorded from the East and Midwest. Nesting colonies of pigeons in the forests were up to 20 miles across, with so many birds per tree that many of the branches frequently broke from the weight.

The passenger pigeon was driven to extinction by uncontrolled commercial hunting. A shotgun fired into an overhead flock could bring down a dozen or more birds with a single shot. Their migratory and nesting habits made them easy to kill in large numbers. They could also be netted, smoked out of their roosts with sulfur torches, or harvested with a forerunner of the machine gun. Countless numbers were slaughtered by simply hurling sticks or rocks into their masses.

Commercial pigeon hunting and processing became primary occupations for many and was facilitated by the development of railroads that made it possible to ship great quantities of the harvested meat to areas of demand. Several thousand people were employed in the passenger pigeon industry in 1850. In one year alone, a billion birds were processed in Michigan, and another operation in New York prepared about 18,000 birds a day for the dinner table. The young squabs were a gourmand’s delight, and the older birds were also relished for their meat as well as their feathers.

In the Rockford-Beloit area, once rail connections had been made, an untold number of barrels of pigeons, quail, and snipe were shipped daily to Chicago and other markets where they were sold for a penny or two each. Lack of refrigeration and warm weather resulted in a shocking waste of the harvest by spoilage, and a significant percentage of the birds was fed to hogs or used as fertilizer. Reliable accounts from that period of our history indicate the passenger pigeon had been exterminated in northern Illinois by 1893. It is not surprising that the wild pigeon population collapsed. Only a few thousand birds remained in 1880, and they were widely dispersed around the country. It was no longer profitable to hunt and market them, so the passenger pigeon industry was abandoned.

Unrestricted hunting was the direct cause of the species’ downfall, but several other things contributed to its demise. Females laid only one egg a year, so it was difficult to replace population numbers. The cutting of deciduous forests that served as nesting sites also was detrimental. The pigeons fed mainly on acorns, chestnuts, and hickory nuts, and when the land was cleared, their food supply was greatly abridged. It is believed large flocks were necessary to stimulate the birds to mate, so when the flocks were greatly reduced in size, mating activity declined. The unrestricted activities of the passenger pigeon industry created a vortex and sucked the species downward into oblivion.

The rock dove or domestic pigeon is a relative of the passenger pigeon and is common in Rockford and other urban centers. Not infrequently, a few citizens are outraged by not finding a clean park bench to sit on, or by having their newly washed car desecrated by droppings, and demand the birds be exterminated by one means or another. Before any such drastic action is instigated, it should be preceded by a careful and detailed study of the resulting ecological, sociological, and moral ramifications. Oystermen on the Chesapeake Bay are mainly out of business today because they have adopted the philosophy of “Get ’em today and to hell with tomorrow.”

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.