Extinction of the American Passenger Pigeon

The True Story    

[Original Essay, "PASSENGER PIGEON:Ectopistses Migratorius (Linnaeus)" by Edward Howe Forbush in "Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds". Massachusetts Board of Agriculture. Reprinted in Birds of America. T. Gilbert Pearson, Editor-in-chief, Copyright 1917, by The University Society Inc.; Copyright, 1936, by Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., pages 39-46. {edited for this site}].

PASSENGER PIGEON     
Ectopistses Migratorius(Linnaeus)      


Other Names -- Wild Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, Red-breasted Pigeon,Blue-headed Pigeon
General Description -- Length, 17 inches. Prevailing color above, grayish-blue; below, reddish-fawn. Tail, very long and graduated for more than half its length, the feather (12 in number) narrowed terminally and obtusely pointed, wings, long and pointed.
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Nest and Eggs -- Nest: Before its extermination, nested in myriad, in the extensive forests sometimes fifty or more of their frail structures of twigs seen in a single. tree. EGGS: l or 2, pure white.

Distribution -- Now extinct, the last living specimen having died in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, September 1, 1914. Formerly perhaps the most numerous of all birds, inhabiting practically the whole forested area of eastern North America, breeding northward to middle western Keewatin, northern Ontario, Quebec, northern Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, southward to Kansas,Northern Mississippi Kentucky and Pennsylvania, migrating southward to the Gulf coast (Florida to Texas), casually to Cuba, eastern Mexico and Guatemala, westward regularly along the Missouri River to Eastern Montana and to Western Texas, accidentally to Nevada, Wyoming, eastern Oregon, western Washington an British Columbia accidental in British Isles, Europe and the Bermudas.

More interest is evidenced in the history of the Passenger Pigeon and its fate than in that of any other North American bird. Its story reads like a romance. Once the most abundant species in its flights and on its nesting grounds, ever known in any country,ranging over the greater part of the continent of North America in innumerable hordes, the race seems to have disappeared during the nineteenth (and early 20th) century, leaving no trace.

Unbelievable Numbers

The Passenger Pigeon was described by Linne in the latter part of the 18th century; but was well known in America many years before. In July, 1605, on the coast of Maine, in latitude 43o25', Champlains saw on some islands an "infinite number of pigeons," of which he took a great quantity. Many early historians,who write of the birds of the Atlantic coast region, mention the Pigeons. The Jesuit Fathers, in their first narratives of Acadia, state that the birds were fully as abundant as the fish, and that in their seasons the Pigeons overloaded the trees. Passing from Nova Scotia to Florida, we find that Stork (1766)asserts that they were in such plenty there for three months of the year that an account of them would seem incredible. John Lawson (1790), in his History of Carolina, speaks of prodigious flocks of Pigeons in 1701-02, which broke down trees in the woods where they roosted, and cleared away all the food in the country before them,scarcely leaving one acorn on the ground.. The early settlers in Virginia found the Pigeons in winter "beyond number or imagination." The Plymouth colony was threatened with famine in 1643, when great flocks of Pigeons swept down upon the ripened corn and beat down and ate "a very great quantity of all sorts of English grain". But Winthrop says that in 1648 they came again after the harvest was gathered, and proved a great blessing, "it being incredible what multitudes of them were killed daily."

These great flights of Pigeons in migration extended over vast tracts of country, and usually passed in their greatest numbers for about three (3) days. This is the testimony of observers in many parts of the land. Afterwards, flocks often came along for a week or two longer. Even as late as the decade succeeding 1866 (1870's)such flights continued, and were still observed throughout the eastern States and Canada, except perhaps along the Atlantic coast.

About 1850 indications of the disappearance of the Pigeons in the East began to attract some notice. They became rare in Newfoundland in the 60's, though formerly abundant there. They grew fewer in Ontario at that time, but according to Fleming some of the old roosts there were occupied until 1870.

Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, tells of a breeding place of the Wild Pigeons in Shelbyville, Ky.(probably about 1806) which was several miles in breadth, and was said to be more than forty miles in extent. More than one hundred nests were found on a tree. The ground was strewn with broken limbs of trees;also eggs and dead squabs {babies} which had been precipitated from above , on which herds of hogs were fattening. He speaks of a flight of these birds from another nesting place some sixty miles away from the first, toward Green River, where they were said to be equally numerous. They were traveling with great steadiness and rapidity, at a height beyond gunshot, several strata deep, very close together, and "from right to left as far as the eye could reach,the breadth of this vast procession extended; seeming everywhere equally crowded." From half-past one to four o'clock in the afternoon, while he was traveling to Frankfort, the same living torrent rolled overhead, seemingly as extensive as ever. He estimated the flock that passed him to be two hundred and forty miles long and a mile wide -- probably much wider -- and to contain two billion two hundred and thirty million, two hundred and seventy-two thousand pigeons. On the supposition that each bird consumed only half a pint of nuts and acorns daily, he reckoned that this column of birds would eat seventeen million, four hundred and twenty-four thousand bushels each day.

John Audubon, the Naturalist

Audubon states that in the autumn of 1813 he left his house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, a few miles from Hardensburgh, to go to Louisville, Ky..
He saw that day what he thought to be the largest flight of Wild Pigeons he had ever seen. The air was literally filled with them; and the "light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse." Before sunset he reached Louisville, fifty five miles from Hardensburgh, and during all that time Pigeons were passing in undiminished numbers. This continued for three days in succession. The people were all armed, and the banks of the river were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the Pigeons, which flew lower as they passed the river. For a week or more the people fed on no other flesh than Pigeons. The atmosphere during that time was strongly impregnated with the odor of the birds. Audubon estimated the number of pigeons passing overhead (in a flock one mile wide) for three hours, traveling at the rate of a mile a minute, allowing two pigeons to the square yard, a one billion, one hundred and fifteen million, one hundred and thirty-six thousand....

Great flights of Pigeons ranged form the Alleghenies to the Mississippi and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico until after the middle of the nineteenth century. Even two decades later {1870's},enormous numbers of Pigeons nested in several States.

Nesting Sites Astonishing

Their winter roosting places almost defy description. Audubon rode through one on the banks of the Green River in Kentucky for more than forty miles, crossing it in different directions, and found its average width to be rather more than three miles....

The nesting places sometimes were equal in size to roosting places, for the Pigeons congregated in enormous numbers to breed in the northern and eastern States. When food was plentiful in the forests, the birds concentrated in large numbers; when it was not, they scattered in smaller groups. The last great nesting place of which we have adequate record was in Michigan, in 1878. Prof. H.B. Roney states in the American Field, that the nesting near Potoskey, that year, covered something like100,000 acres, and included not less than 150,000 acres within its limits. It was estimated to be about forty miles in length and from three to ten miles in width. It is difficult to approximate the number of millions of Pigeons that occupied that great nesting place.

Audubon, who described the dreadful havoc made among these birds on their roosting grounds by man, says that people unacquainted with them might naturally conclude that such destruction would soon put an end to the species, but he had satisfied himself, by long observation that nothing but the gradual diminution of the forests could accomplish the decrease of the birds, for he believed that they not infrequently quadrupled their numbers during the year and always doubled them. The enormous multitudes of the Pigeons made such an impression upon the mind that the extinction of the species at that time, and for many years afterward, seemed an an impossibility. Nevertheless, it has occurred. How can this apparent impossibility be explained? It cannot be accounted for by the destructiveness of their natural enemies, for during the years when the Pigeons were the most abundant their natural enemies were most numerous.The extinction of the Pigeons has been coincident with the disappearance of bears, panthers, wolves, lynxes, and some of the larger birds of prey from a large portion of their range.

The aborigines never could have reduced appreciably the number of the species. Wherever the great roost were established, Indians always gathered in great numbers. This, according to their traditions, had been the custom among them from time immemorial. They always had slaughtered these birds, young and old, in great quantities, but there was no market among the Indians,and the only way they could preserve the meat for future use was by drying or smoking the breasts.They cured large numbers in this way. Also, they were accustomed to kill great quantities of the squabs in order to take out the fat, which was used as butter is used by the whites. Lawson writes (1709): "You may find several Indian towns of not above seventeen houses that have more than 100 gallons  pigeons oil or fat."

But it was not until a market demand for the birds was created by the whites that the Indians ever seriously affected the increase of the Pigeons. Kalm states, in his monograph of the Pigeon, that the Indians of Canada would not molest the Pigeons in their breeding places until the young were able to fly. They did everything in their power to prevent the whites from disturbing them, even using threats, where pleading did not avail.

HOW DID THE IMPOSSIBLE HAPPEN ??

When the white man appeared on this continent, conditions rapidly changed. Practically all the early settlers were accustomed to the use of firearms; and whenever Pigeons appeared in great numbers, the inhabitants armed themselves with guns,clubs, stones, poles, and whatever could be used to destroy the birds. The most destructive implement was the net, to which the birds were attracted by bait, and under which vast numbers of them were trapped. Gunners baited the birds with grain. Dozens of birds sometimes were killed thus at a single shot. In one case seventy-one birds were killed by two shots. A single shot from the old flint-lock, single-barreled gun, fired into a tree, sometimes would procure a back load of pigeons.

The Pigeons were reduced greatly in numbers on the whole Atlantic seaboard during the first two centuries after the settlement of the country. But in the West their numbers remained apparently the same until the nineteenth century. There was no appreciable decrease there during the first half of that {19th} century, but during the latter half, railroads were pushed across the plains to the Pacific, settlers increased rapidly to the Mississippi and beyond, and the diminution of the Pigeons in the West began. Already it had become noticeable in western Pennsylvania, western New York, along the Appalachian mountain chain and in Ohio. This was due in part to the destruction of the forests, particularly the beechwoods which once covered vast tracts, and which furnished the birds with a chief supply of food. Later, the primeval pine and hemlock forests of the northern States largely were cut away. This deprived the birds of another source of food--the seed of these trees. The destruction of the forests, however, was not complete, for, although great tracts of land were cleared, there remained and still remain {1936?} vast regions more or less covered by coppice growth sufficient to furnish great armies of Pigeons with food and the cultivation of the land and the raising of grain provided new sources of good supply. Therefore, while the reduction of the forest area in the East was a large factor in the diminution of the Pigeons, we cannot attribute their extermination to the destruction of the forest. Forest fires undoubtedly had something to do with reducing the number of these birds, for many were destroyed by these fires, and in some cases large areas of forest were ruined absolutely by fire, thus for many years depriving the birds of a portion of their food supply. Nevertheless, the fires were local and restricted, and had comparatively little effect on the vast numbers of the species.

The net, though used by fowlers almost everywhere in the East from the earliest settlement of the country, was not a great factor in the extermination of the Pigeons in the Mississippi Valley States until the later half of the nineteenth century. With the extension of railroads and telegraph lines through the States, the occupation of the netter became more stable than before, for he could follow the birds wherever they went. The number of men who made netting an occupation after the year 1860 is variously estimated at from 400 to 1000. Whenever a flight of Pigeons left one nesting place and made toward another, the netter learned their whereabouts by telegraph, packed up their belongings, and moved to the new location, sometimes following the birds a thousand miles at one move. Some of them not only made a living, but earned a competency, by netting Pigeons during part of the year and shooting wildfowl and game birds during the remainder of the season. In addition to these there were the local netters who plied the trade only when the Pigeons came their way.

Possibly the last great slaughter of Pigeons in New York, of which we have record, was some time in the 70's. A flock had nested in Missouri in April, where they were followed by the same pigeoners, who again destroyed the squabs {young}. The Pigeons then flew to New York State, and nested near the upper Beaverkill in the Catskills in the lower part of Ulster County. It is said that tons of the birds were sent to the New York market from this nesting place and that not less than fifteen tons of ice were used in packing the squabs.
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Still, people read of the "mysterious" disappearance of the Passenger Pigeon, wonder what caused it, and say that it never has been satisfactorily explained. The New York market alone would take 100 barrels a day for weeks without a break in price. Chicago, St. Louis, Boston and all the great and little cities of the North and East joined in the demand. Need we wonder why the pigeons have vanished?

The birds that survived the slaughter at Petosky in 1878 finally left the nesting place in large bodies and disappeared to the North, and from that time onward the diminution of the Pigeons was continuous....
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There were many smaller nestings for years after the Petoskey nesting of
1878, for the reason that the birds at three large breeding places in other States or regions were driven out by persecution, and joined the Petoskey group. After this the birds exhibited a tendency to scatter to regions where they were least molested.. {There still were to have been two great nestings in Michigan in 1881.}
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A flock was seen in Illinois in 1895, from which two specimens were taken. At that time the netting of the birds had been practically given up, and most of the dealers had seen no Pigeons for two seasons. It finally ceased, on account of the virtual extinction of the birds.
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"While the big nestings of 1878 and 1881 in Michigan were the last immense breeding places of Passenger Pigeons on record, the species didn't become extinct in a day or a year; they were not wiped from the face of the earth by any great catastrophe. They gradually became fewer and fewer for twenty to twenty-five years after the date set by the pigeoners as that of the last great migration." An entire species numbering in the billions was extinguished. The "impossible" was achieved by uncontrolled modern mechanized killing.

Some of the Pigeons may been driven by persecution to the Far North to breed, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and they may have been destroyed by unseasonable storms, for many species are subject to periodical reduction bythe elements; but the whole history of the last thirty years of the existence of the Passenger Pigeon goes to prove that the birds were so persistently molested that they finally lost their coherence, were scattered far and wide, and became extinct mainly through constant persecution by man. While they existed in large colonies, the orphaned young were taken care of by their neighbors. The communal habit of feeding preserved the species so long as the birds nested in large colonies, but when they became scattered the young starved when their parents were killed.
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It often is asked how it was possible for man to kill them all. It was not possible, nor was it requisite that he should do so in order to exterminate them. All that was required to bring about this result was to destroy a large part of the young birds hatched each year. Nature cut off the rest....
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Gone Forever -- September 1, 1914       

...No adequate attempt to protect them was made until they practically had disappeared. Whenever a law looking toward the conservation of these birds was proposed in any State, its opponents argued before the legislative committees that the Pigeons "needed no protection"; that their numbers were so vast, and that they ranged over such a great extent of country, that they were simply able to take care of themselves. This argument defeated all measures that might have given adequate protection to this species.That is why extinction finally came quickly. We did our best to exterminate both old and young,and we succeeded. The explanation is so simple that all talk of "mystery" seems sadly out of place here....
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