The Story of the Extinct Passenger Pigeons

Updated on July 16, 2018
Casey White profile image

Dorothy McKenney is a former newspaper reporter turned researcher. Her husband, Mike, is a professional landscape/nature photographer.

“The birds poured in in countless multitudes. The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow..."- John J. Audubon
“The birds poured in in countless multitudes. The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow..."- John J. Audubon | Source

There was a time when the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was endemic to North America and the most common bird found there. It was estimated that there were about five billion of them, but because they traveled in large groups, there were times that their flocks completely blocked out the sun. It seems that they weren't spread out equally across the continent and preferred to travel in huge flocks that stretched across the sky for many miles creating a loud, deafening "cooing" sound, which naturally meant that people wanted to get rid of some of them. All the pigeons were doing was searching for acorns and beechnuts in an abundant supply but while they were searching for food, so were people.

These birds had already been a major part of food eaten by Native Americans and European settlers, so when immigrants began arriving in North America, they began eating the pigeons to keep from starving. They were hunted and killed by the millions.

Naturally, people in the crowded cities on the east coast wanted to have them to eat as well, so hunters in the Midwest began killing them and shipping them cross country over the transcontinental railroad network. But, the killing of passenger pigeons for food was only one aspect of the most dramatic path to extinction ever witnessed.

Manifest Destiny

Settlers began spreading out across the continent of North America with a strong belief in the 19th century Manifest Destiny doctrine that stated (in a nutshell) that the expansion across the United States was inevitable. That expansion, however, led to countless acres of deforestation, which in turn led to the disappearance of the passenger pigeons' habitat. As the flocks of the pigeons dwindled in size, their populations began decreasing below the numbers necessary in order to propagate the species.

Not only did deforestation deprive these birds of their accustomed nesting grounds, but when they ate the crops planted on cleared land, angry farmers killed millions of them.

Wisconsin Society for Ornithology members erected this public monument in Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin to keep the memory of the passenger pigeon alive.
Wisconsin Society for Ornithology members erected this public monument in Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin to keep the memory of the passenger pigeon alive. | Source

Protection for Passenger Pigeons

In 1857, a bill seeking protection for the passenger pigeon was brought forth to the Ohio State Legislature. In a report filed by a select committee of the Senate, those who addressed the bill stated the following: "The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced."

A barely-enforced bill was passed in the Michigan legislature making it illegal to net pigeons within two miles of a nesting area, and in 1897, a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature requesting a 10-year closed season on passenger pigeons, which proved to be futile. Similar legal measures were passed and ultimately disregarded in Pennsylvania.

When their numbers were reduced, the passenger pigeon was unable to continue breeding since it was a colonial and gregarious bird that practiced communal roosting and communal breeding. Large numbers were needed in order to present optimum conditions for breeding.

The Passenger Pigeon... was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two biotic poles of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and his own zest for living. Yearly the feathered tempest roared...across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie...Once the pigeoners had subtracted from his numbers, and once the settlers had chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.

— Aldo Leopold, 1947, On a Monument to the Pigeon

An Artist Rendering of Martha

Source

The Last Few Passenger Pigeons

The last known group of passenger pigeons was kept by the late Professor Charles Otis Whitman, a biologist at the University of Chicago. After he retired and until his death in 1910, he studied evolution and observed the behavior of pigeons he raised near his campus laboratory (Whitman studied passenger pigeons along with rock doves and Eurasian collared doves). A female passenger pigeon named Martha was sent to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902 by the professor. Whitman had about a dozen passenger pigeons in 1903 but they had stopped breeding and by 1906 he had only five.

On September 1, 1914, Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her body was frozen in a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution. She was ultimately mounted and is housed in the museum's archived collection but not on display.

On the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo, visitors can see a memorial statue of Martha, the very last passenger pigeon.

Project Passenger Pigeon

Project Passenger Pigeon (referred to as P3) was created in 2014 to mark the anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha. The purpose was to promote the conservation of species and habitats, to strengthen relationships between people and nature, and foster the sustainable use of our country's natural resources. So far, in an attempt to engage a broad audience, the project members have created a documentary film, a book on the extinct birds, a website, interaction on social media, and exhibits and programming for all interested people.

As of 2014, there were over 190 institutions of higher learning participating in the project.

References

  1. https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/611/articles/introduction (Retrieved from website 7/15/2018)
  2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/06/the-birds-4 (Retrieved from website 7/15/2018) (Retrieved from website 7/15/2018)
  3. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-passenger-pigeon-1093725 (Retrieved from website 7/15/2018)
  4. https://blogs.massaudubon.org/yourgreatoutdoors/the-passenger-pigeon-a-cautionary-tale/ (Retrieved from website 7/15/2018)

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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      • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

        Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

        3 weeks ago from United States

        I agree completely. Thanks for reading.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        3 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        This is an interesting article as I had no knowledge of these pigeons. It is a shame when any creature gets hunted to extinction.

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