The Passenger Pigeon
Nature Bulletin No. 181-A February 27, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
THE PASSENGER PIGEON
We Americans have been a greedy heedless people plundering and
wasting the natural resources which made possible the building of this
great nation -- the soils, the waters, the forests, the minerals and the
wildlife, In the United States there was once an abundance of wildlife
never found on any other land. We have come close to exterminating
many valuable kinds, notably the buffalo and the beaver. Several
species once abundant are extinct, among them the Passenger Pigeon.
The passenger pigeon was a graceful elegant bird with a long wedge-
shaped tail, considerably larger than our Mourning Dove and mighty
good to eat. The males were handsome: slaty blue and brown above;
the head blue; the sides and back of the neck iridescent with pink,
purple, green and gold; the breast a rich reddish-brown shading to
pinkish on the sides; with short stout red legs. Unlike other doves and
pigeons, its voice was rather loud and harsh. The females were more
drab in color. Native to the unbroken forests which covered most of
central and eastern North America, they nested in huge colonies. An
area of 100 square miles might have every tree loaded with nests, some
times 100 nests in a single tree. The nests were merely a crisscross
jumble of sticks in which one pure-white egg was laid.
Those billions of wild pigeons fed on mast -- the acorns, beechnuts,
chestnuts and other seeds on the trees and on the ground; also upon
the many kinds of berries so plentiful in those days, as well as upon
caterpillars and other insects -- a much wider variety of food than any
of our present-day pigeons and doves. Feeding on the ground, a flock
would extend over a wide front, moving rapidly forward, with one rear
rank, and then another continually rising in the air and dropping down
ahead so that, as the flock surged along with a rolling motion, the
ground was swept bare of pigeon food.
Their migrations were not the regular seasonal flights of most birds
but mass migrations in search of food. Audubon, the great naturalist,
observed a flight over Louisville, Kentucky, in 1813, which darkened
the sky as if by an eclipse of the sun and continued to pass over "in
undiminished numbers" for three successive days. In 1832, another
great ornithologist, Alexander Wilson, estimated that a single flock
which roosted in Kentucky and fed in the beech forests of Indiana,
contained at least 2,230,270,000 birds and possibly twice that many.
Audubon measured one pigeon roost more than 40 miles long that
averaged over 3 miles in width, where large branches and even big
trees were broken down by the weight of the birds.
There were other gigantic flocks that nested in Arkansas, Missouri,
Michigan, New York and other places. Wherever they were, wherever
they went, the market hunters followed and slaughtered them. They
were decoyed, trapped, netted, shot, clubbed, caught at night, and
suffocated with sulfur fumes. The young -- the tender squabs -- were
taken by millions and shipped to market or dried, smoked, or pickled
for winter use. In the northern birch forests, the trees were set afire,
causing the young birds to leap from the nests, to provide food for
fattening droves of hogs.
The last great nesting in Michigan was at Petoskey in 1878. At least
300 tons of birds were shipped to markets, and possibly a hundred
million or more birds killed by the 5000 netters, hunters and laborers
who made their living there that year. That was the beginning of the
end. By 1890, only a few stray flocks remained, here and there in the
Middle West and Southwest. In 1908, $1000 was offered for a pair of
passenger pigeons because the only known survivors were about a
dozen in the Cincinnati Zoo. On September 2, 1914, the last one died.
They are extinct -- gone where the dodo did.
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Update: June 2012