The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

Martha, on display at the Smithsonian

Martha, on display at the Smithsonian

On September 1, 1914, Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Just like that, a bird that numbered in the billions about a half century before, was gone. She had once been part of a pair, with her male counterpart George, but he had died several years before. So, for the final years of her life, Martha sat in her one-bird cage alone.

The passenger pigeon once dominated the North American skies. It has been estimated that when Europeans first arrived to this continent late in the 15th century, there were three to five billion passenger pigeons already here. To put that in perspective, its distant cousin, the rock pigeon, the birds you see hanging out in courtyards eating bread crumbs, number about 260 million worldwide.

Legends abound about how these birds used to black out the sky when they moved en masse. John James Audubon, the famed naturalist and ornithologist, once said he saw a flock create a full “solar eclipse” for three days as it passed. It’s been estimated that the largest flocks of passenger pigeons were second only to the Rocky Mountain locusts in group size.  For reference, the Rocky Mountain locusts could potentially swarm an area the size of California, with an estimated 12.5 trillion locusts in the largest such swarm ever recorded.

As for the passenger pigeon, when the birds nested, they formed colonies that were extraordinary in size. In 1871, a colony in central Wisconsin was recorded to have occupied 850 square miles, a little larger in size than the entire country of Georgia.  In 1866, a passing flock of passenger pigeons was estimated to contain 3.5 billion of the birds, with the width of the flock about 1.5 miles and the length about 300 miles.  Needless to say, even if these numbers were a bit inflated, if you were traveling under the flying column, an umbrella of some sort probably would have been a good idea.

So, what happened to these birds? How, in such a short time, could the passenger pigeon go from being so numerous to extinct? If you guessed “humans,” you’re correct. 

Mountain of passenger pigeon carcasses

Mountain of passenger pigeon carcasses

Their extinction was partially brought about via deforestation and loss of habitat, but more because they were just so darn tasty, or at the very least, abundant and easy to kill.

When the first humans started showing up in the Americas, they immediately began including passenger pigeons in their diet.  When Europeans began settling, they quickly figured out that passenger pigeons were a cheap source of food. The meat became quite popular with the poor, simply because anyone could at least make a few kills among the heavily populated nests. Even children could knock out a few pigeons and start clubbing away.

By the mid-19th century, professional pigeon trapping was a major industry. Trappers were making money hand over fist.  By 1855, the number of passenger pigeons were noticeably declining, though the flocks were still massive as noted above, so very little was done about it.

In 1857, a bill was presented to the Ohio State legislature, but was quickly dismissed. A report was filed that read, “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.”

A huge nesting area was found in Petoskey, Michigan in 1878. Trappers flocked there and, according to the Smithsonian, over a five month period 50,000 birds per day were killed. This turned out to be one of the last large nesting areas of the bird.  As this fact became apparent, a bill was finally passed making it illegal to trap the pigeons within two miles of their nesting area.

By 1890, the wild passenger pigeon was nearly completely eradicated. In 1897, the Michigan state legislature passed a bill putting a ten year ban on the killing of passenger pigeons. But it was too late.  Seventeen years later, the last known living passenger pigeon would die alone in her cage.


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