The Passenger Pigeon

And the Birds CAme Tumbling Down…

By Christine Ngo

Passenger pigeons at Old Fort Erie in 1803. The man with the gun and dog is likely the artist: Surgeon Edward Walsh of the 49th Foot.

Passenger pigeons at Old Fort Erie in 1803. The man with the gun and dog is likely the artist: Surgeon Edward Walsh of the 49th Foot.

The very last passenger pigeon was named Martha; she died at the age of 29 in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. Before the eventual demise of the passenger pigeon, they were the most predominant bird in all of North America with an estimated population of over a billion birds. It is because of their numbers that the passenger pigeon became one of the more commercially hunted wild animals. They were found not only in the popular nestling grounds, in the southern parts of the United States, but also in northern forest and found their way into Niagara Falls. Yet in just over a century the species went extinct.

A flock of passenger pigeons was a wonder in itself, having hundreds of millions of birds. It was said that the flock could be heard from miles away in a swarm that resembled a thunderstorm in both size and sound. Those who witnessed the spectacle were frightful and amazed by it; once overhead the flock would cover “almost the entire visible area of sky” and this could last up to four hours. The birds flew at an estimated speed of about one hundred kilometers an hour.  The passenger pigeon stayed in large flocks and migrated from location to location in order to ensure sufficient resources for the group. The birds found safety in numbers  — their overwhelming numbers were their defense — and needed large numbers for the best breeding conditions.   The habitat of the passenger pigeon was mixed hardwood forests.  The birds depended on the huge forests for their spring nesting sites, for winter "roosts," and for food.   A single site might cover many thousands of acres and the birds were so congested in these areas that hundreds of nests could be counted in a single tree.  The mainstays of the passenger pigeon's diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests. Worms and insects supplemented the diet in spring and summer.

In the winter the birds established "roosting" sites in the forests of the southern states. Each "roost" often had such tremendous numbers of birds so crowded and massed together that they frequently broke the limbs of the trees by their weight. In the morning the birds flew out in large flocks scouring the countryside for food. At night they returned to the roosting area. Their scolding and chattering as they settled down for the night could be heard for miles. When the food supply became depleted or the weather conditions adverse, the birds would establish a new roosting area in a more favourable location.  In the winter and spring these flocks would gather into roosts and settle in a single location for the breeding season. A single site would house an estimated 136 million passenger pigeons. 

Because the passenger pigeon congregated in such huge numbers, it needed large forests for its existence. When the early settlers cleared the eastern forests for farmland, the birds were forced to shift their nesting and roosting sites to the forests that still remained. As their forest food supply decreased, the birds began utilizing the grain fields of the farmers. The large flocks of passenger pigeons often caused serious damage to the crops, and the farmers retaliated by shooting the birds and using them as a source of meat. However, this did not seem to seriously diminish the total number of birds.

Whenever it arrived at a location occupied by people, typically in spring, the sight of fresh meat excited the masses. The flocks were so large that simply waving a pole into the air was enough to  knock down a couple of birds. Around the time of the 1830s, pigeon meat had become very popular; this is evident through pigeon bones found in the foundation of the Battle Ground Hotel. Baked into pot pies, stewed, fried or salted, the passenger pigeon was a staple for many North Americans.  As time went on people acquired the taste for pigeon meat and professional hunters chased them all around the country.

As passenger pigeons flew around in large flocks, it was not too difficult to trace where they had been. Accompanied by their migration patterns the hunters had a relatively easy time finding the whereabouts of their nesting sites. The birds were netted, shot, drugged and beaten down from their perches. One of the last major nestling sites was decimated in 1878; it is estimated that 50,000 birds were killed each day for five months. At this point pigeon meat was sold off very cheaply; a dozen birds cost only 50 cents.

 

Those who survived moved on but they could no longer successfully reproduce and recover their numbers. There was an effort made to breed the birds still in captivity but the project was never successful. Martha did not lay a single fertile egg and died as the last of her species in 1914.

Bibliography

Annette Scherber, “Flocks that Darken the Heavens: The Passenger Pigeon in Indiana,” Indiana History Blog, 2017, https://blog.history.in.gov/flocks-that-darken-the-heavens-the-passenger-pigeon-in-indiana/

 

David Biello, “3 Billion to Zero: What Happened to the Passenger pigeon?” Scientific America, 2014, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/3-billion-to-zero-what-happened-to-the-passenger-pigeon/

 

Department of Vertebrate Zoology , “The Passenger Pigeon,” Smithsonian, https://www.si.edu/spotlight/passenger-pigeon


“"Martha," The Last Passenger Pigeon,” Smithsonian Natural Museum of Natural History, https://naturalhistory.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/martha2.html

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