–Margaret Mitchell, The Passenger Pigeon in Ontario, 1935
On the afternoon of September 14, 1914, 100 years ago, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Over the previous fifty years the combined forces of habitat loss and ruthless commercial hunting reduced her relatives and friends to grist in a slaughter mill. Flocks that had numbered millions of birds in the 1870s, by the 1890s might number less than 100 individuals. A total population that numbered perhaps three to five billion when Europeans first began arriving in North America, fell to numbers so low that, even when allowed by hunters and farmers to roost, could not sustain itself. The story of the passenger pigeon shows the extraordinary influence a species can have on ecology and culture (human and otherwise) and also the profound and tragic impact humanity can have on the natural world.
James J. Audubon
A passenger pigeon measured 15 to 18 inches in length and weighed roughly 12 ounces. According to Joel Greenburg in his recent book, A Feathered River Across the Sky (Bloomsbury, 2014), it “looked like a mourning dove on steroids” (1). “The male pigeon possessed slaty-blue and gray upper parts and a throat and breast of rich copper glazed with purple, while the female was a much drabber version throughout, with beige replacing copper” (2). At one time, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in the Americas and may have constituted as much as 40% of North American bird life. Its migratory range stretched throughout the northeast and Midwest from Louisiana and Texas to Northern Ontario and Quebec. They lived in the sky, in enormous flocks that early observers described as blocking out the sun and taking two or three days to pass. When these flights alighted in trees either to forage for food (soft fruit, nuts and seeds, were favorites) or to nest, the destruction resembled that of a tornado or hurricane. The weight of all the birds bent branches low and shattered limbs. The birds themselves cleared the forest floor, leaving behind feathers and deep guano piles. The size of a roosting site depended on the flock, with recorded examples as large as 120 square miles and more. In short, the passenger pigeon was an extraordinary species, noted for its beauty and the undeniable impact it had on nature and people.
Pigeons were a vital part of Indigenous peoples diets long before Europeans arrived. Because the birds migrated, however, they could not be relied on as a food source. Abundant one year, they might fail to appear entirely the next. Even so, the passenger pigeon not only entered into human diets, but also human cultures. Jesuit missionaries recorded the belief of some Huron/Wendat that at the feast of the dead souls left the cemeteries as turtledoves (pigeons). Amongst the Haudenousaunee, the pigeon dance opens the annual maple festival. Flocks provided an important seasonal food source in spring before the planting of new corn crops. The Mi’kmaq witnessed in the constellations a group of seven birds (stars) chasing Muin (bear) across the sky, one of which is pigeon (Ples). As the seasons change these seven stars gradually disappear and reappear just as the birds in their migrations do.
When Europeans began to arrive in North America, they too were fascinated with passenger pigeons. On July 1st, 1534, Jacques Cartier landed on Prince Edward Island and recorded what may be the first sighting of passenger pigeons by a European. Far to the south, Virgina settler Ralphe Hamor witnessed in 1615 “wilde pigeons beyond number or imagination, my selfe have seene three or four hours together flockes in the aire, so thicke that even they have shadowed the skie from us” (in Greenburg, 47). Two hundred years later, the flight of passenger pigeons still awed the famous America naturalist, James Audubon, for his observation point in Kentucky.
As soon as the pigeons discover a sufficiency of food to entice them to alight, they fly around in circles, reviewing the country below. During their evolutions, on such occasions, the dense mass which they form exhibits a beautiful appearance, as it changes its direction, now displaying a glistening sheet of azure, when the backs of the birds come simultaneously into view, and anon, suddenly present a mass of rich deep purple. They then pass lower, over the woods, and for a moment are lost among the foliage, but then emerge again, and are seen gliding aloft. They now alight, but the next moment, as if suddenly alarmed, they take to the wing, producing by the flapping of their wings a noise like the roar of distant thunder, and sweep through the forest to see if danger is near (Ornithological Biography, 322)
Like they did for the Indigenous population, these birds amazed the Europeans who saw them, but also set their stomachs rumbling. While Jacques Cartier observed, his countryman Samuel de Champlain, who followed in 1604 to what would become Canada, went hunting. At Goosefare Bay, off what is now southern Maine, he and his crew took “a goodly quantity” of the “countless numbers of pigeons” that had stopped there apparently to feast on red currants (Biggar, The Works of Champlain, vol. 1, 332). So began a slaughter that would continue for 300 years until not one was left. The birds proved easy to take. They showed little fear even when hunters entered their roosts, and men firing into dense flocks could not help but take many birds. Nets were deployed and other traps that used live captive birds as lures to draw passing flocks to land. So common and familiar was pigeon hunting at one time that even a century and more after the last great hunts of the 1870s and 1880s these captives survive today in our contemporary lexicon as “stool pigeons”—decoys and police informers. So numerous were the flocks that passed over colonial settlements, however, that no one could believe hunting would ever destroy the entire species.
Stool Pigeon Trap
Shooting: From The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News, July 3, 1875.
Yet, ever more efficient means of killing began to take a toll. In an unusual instance, a particularly alert gunner at Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON) spotted a flock of pigeons crossing Lake Ontario in 1846 and, loading his canon with grapeshot, killed hundreds (Taylor, Narrative of a Voyage to Upper Canada, 171). It was the development of railways and refrigeration cars, however, the turned a food source into a commodity. Suddenly, fresh birds might be shipped from the roosts where they were taken to city markets in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Shipped and sold in bulk, purveyors could make a good profit on the relatively inexpensive birds. Professional hunters appeared who followed the roost flocks each spring and summer, invading pigeon cities and taking birds by the barrel-full. The expansion of agricultural settlement westward after the civil war added this work, destroying roosting habitat and ensuring a vigilant and watchful population that would report where and when the birds nested. The chicks, called squabs, were particularly valued as a delicacy. An 1871 nesting in Wisconsin, the largest ever recorded, covered 850 square miles and perhaps 136 million birds, not including squabs. Hunters took at least 1.2 million of them and likely many more than that (Greenburg, 135). Another nesting in Michigan in 1878 produced at least 1.1 million dead birds packed into barrels and shipped out by rail. This was industrial slaughter and by the 1880s flocks were dwindling. By the 1890s, passenger pigeon sightings were rare. Once the most common bird in North America, the wild pigeon had all but disappeared.
This disappearance did not go unnoticed at the time, yet, it seems people could not stop shooting the birds. A list of “last appearances in Ontario” gathered by the Royal Ontario Mudeum in the 1930s makes for grim reading.
1880—Grey County. “The last pigeons near the village of Leith (near Owen Sound) were killed by John Thomas, father of Tom Thomson, the artist. He killed two.”
1882—Essex County, Point Pelee. “…we often saw small flocks…running up to perhaps fifteen or twenty. I have one specimen from that trip, although we shot several.”
And from my own city of London…
1885—“The last record of birds that probably bred in the London district is that of 3 or 4 birds, a male, a female, and young, which were seen and the female and young shot…”
(Full list, Margaret Mitchell, The Passenger Pigeon in Ontario, 1935, 130—7)
Passenger Pigeons disappeared from the wild around the turn of the century, just about the same time that conservationists began to push for changes in law to protect migratory birds. The only remaining live specimens were thereafter found in zoos and perhaps remaining private collections. Martha died of old age, the last of her species.
Martha, on display at the Smithsonian. Photo by Carl Hansen, Smithsonian Institution, 1985.
Many at the time refused to believe that people were responsible for the demise of an animal that had once appeared in such astonishing numbers. Disease and natural disasters such as forest fires were blamed. Some thought the birds had escaped their pursuers to South America or even Australia. But hunting combined with habitat loss as a result of forest clearing seem to have been the primary factors. The birds survived because their sheer numbers gave the species as a whole an advantage over any would be predator–except for humans who kill on an industrial scale. At some point, passenger pigeon numbers reached a threshold “below which they lost the capacity to make up for the high mortality rates they suffered” (Greenberg, 195). There were no longer enough eyes-in-the-sky to find food or good nesting sites. Individuals could no longer rely on the group for safety while they sat on their nests. Perhaps they stopped breeding altogether. Whatever the case, over hunting reduce passenger pigeons to the point where population collapse became inevitable. The spectacle of a flight of passenger pigeons, once an integral part of North American life, lost forever.
Joel Greenberg’s book, A Feathered River across the Sky, makes for compelling and tragic reading. His research and breadth of knowledge seems at points to almost bring the passenger pigeon to life again. To mark the anniversary of their extinction other artists and institutions are also paying tribute to these birds in ways that provide beautiful and grim reminders of how such folly and wanton destruction can happen.
Laurel Ruth Hope
Royal Ontario Museum: Empty Skies: The Passenger Pigeon Legacy
Mass MoCA: Eclipse