The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

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Podcast Transcript

In the early 19th century, the most abundant bird in North America, and perhaps the entire world, was the passenger pigeon. An estimated three billion of them would fly in flocks so large that they could blot out the sun. 

However, within a century, the entire species had gone extinct. 

It was one of the fastest and most disastrous turnarounds for any species in recorded history.

Learn more about the passenger pigeon and how they went extinct on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The scientific name for the bird known as the passenger pigeon is Ectopistes migratorius. The term passenger comes from the French word “passager” which means “passing by,” in reference to the bird’s migratory habits. 

In a previous episode, I talked about the extinction of the dodo bird. The dodo was as unlike the passenger pigeon as a bird could be.

For starters, the dodo was a flightless bird. They were really easy to catch. The biggest difference is that there were never many dodos, to begin with. The dodo was limited to the small island of Mauritius.

The passenger pigeon, on the other hand, was extremely abundant and had a habitat that covered most of the eastern and central parts of North America. 

The passenger pigeon was approximately the same size as a morning dove but genetically closer to the North American pigeon. 

Male passenger pigeons were approximately 390 to 410 millimeters or 15.4 to 16.1 inches, in length, with females only slightly smaller. 

The biggest difference between males and females was color. Males had a bronze-colored neck, and females were a duller, brown color.

However, these things were not the distinguishing characteristic of the passenger pigeon. Anyone who ever encountered and wrote about the passenger pigeon always noted the same things about them: they lived and traveled in massive flocks. 

Truly massive flocks. It is entirely probable they created the largest flocks of any species of bird in the world. 

Even if you discount the stories of how big the flocks were, they would still be enormous. It is estimated that there may have been as many as 3 billion passenger pigeons in the 19th century, a full ? of all the birds in North America.

One of the best descriptions of passenger pigeons was given by a man name Simon Pokegon, the chief of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians.  He wrote of an experience he had in southern Michigan in May 1850. 

One morning on leaving my wigwam I was startled by hearing a gurgling, rumbling sound as though an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me. As I listened more intently I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear calm and beautiful. Nearer and nearer came the strange commingling sounds of sleigh bells, mixed with the rumbling of an approaching storm. While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season. They passed like a cloud through the branches of the high trees, through the underbrush and over the ground, apparently overturning every leaf. Statue-like I stood, half-concealed by cedar boughs. They fluttered all about me, lighting on my head and shoulders; gently I caught two in my hands and carefully concealed them under my blanket. 

There were many other similar recollections of awesome displays of passenger pigeons. The noted ornithologist John James Audubon wrote in his book Ornithological Biography:

“The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse…Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.” 

John Muir wrote in his personal memoir “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth,” 

“I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray.”

By all accounts, and there are many more than these, witnessing passenger pigeon flocks was one of the most incredible sights in nature. 

Because they were so abundant, they were a huge source of food. 

The native people who lived in North America regularly harvested them and would frequently move their camps to be closer to nesting areas. 

The way they were usually hunted was by taking juvenile birds from their nests at night. They took juveniles instead of adults so they wouldn’t move their nesting areas. The admonition against taking breeding adults was taken very seriously by many tribes to the point of making it a crime. 

Away from breeding areas, they would just use large nets which could capture as many as 800 birds at once. There were reports of birds flying so low that they could be killed by throwing sticks or stones at them.

When European settlers arrived, they, too, used passenger pigeons as a major food source. 

Hunting usually consisted of nothing more than pointing a shotgun at a flock and pulling the trigger. There were so many birds that you wouldn’t even need to aim. One hunter was reported to have killed 61 pigeons with a single blast from a double-barreled shotgun. 

One technique they used to get pigeons to land was to tie one, usually blind, to a stool to call in other birds. This is the origin of the term “stool pigeon.”

Passenger pigeons were hunted in such quantities that they would be sent to large east coast cities by the ton in railroad box cars. 

The hunting of passenger pigeons became commercialized. One hunter reported sending three million to major cities. When the town of Plattsburgh, New York, was connected to the railroad in 1851, they shipped 1.8 million pigeons in a single year.

There were so many pigeons that they were often captured and used for sporting competitions. 

They would be kept inside a trap and then released for shooting contests. This is the origin of “trap shooting.” When live pigeons ceased being used, they were replaced with “clay pigeons.”

As you can see, passenger pigeons were extremely abundant. So abundant that the idea that they could possibly go extinct seemed absurd to almost anyone living in 19th-century North America.

So, what happened?

If it was just a matter of hunting, the passenger pigeon wouldn’t have gone extinct. 

The most precinct statement about the passenger pigeon was given by the French adventurer and author Bénédict Henry Révoil. He noted as early as 1856, 

Everything leads to the belief that the pigeons, which cannot endure isolation and are forced to flee or to change their way of living according to the rate at which North America is populated by the European inflow, will simply end by disappearing from this continent, and, if the world does not end this before a century, I will wager… that the amateur of ornithology will find no more wild pigeons, except those in the Museums of Natural History.

The biggest thing working against the passenger pigeon was deforestation. They would nest in deciduous forests in eastern and central North America. As settlers spread westward, the vast majority of that forest was converted to farmland. 

Passenger pigeons laid only one egg at a time. They would create large communal nesting areas, often hundreds of square miles in size. One such nesting site in Wisconsin was 2,200 km2 or 850 square miles in area and was estimated to have 150 million birds. 

The passenger pigeon had very particular nesting requirements. When large forests disappeared, they weren’t able to reproduce.

The decline in passenger pigeons became noticeable in the 1870s. However, there was no change in hunting. One of the last great nestings occurred in 1878 in Michigan.  Hunters killed 50,000 pigeons a day for five months. 

The problem was that the hunting prevented the pigeons from nesting and finding new nesting sites. 

The 1880s and 1890s saw a rapid decrease in the population of the birds. 

Nesting areas were continually being converted into farmland, yet hunting never let up. 

Attempts were made to put restrictions on hunting or bans on passenger pigeon hunting outright, but they either weren’t passed, or they were ignored. 

By the mid-1890s, there were very few passenger pigeons left. Many of the last wild pigeons would often be found with doves and other pigeons. Despite almost complete disappearance, they continued to be hunted. 

The last wild nest and egg were found in 1895 near Minneapolis. 

The last wild passenger pigeons were shot and mounted in 1901 in Illinois and in 1902 in Indiana. The 1901 pigeon is still located at Millikin University. 

Some passenger pigeons were kept in zoos. One of the largest populations of passenger pigeons was kept at the Cincinnati Zoo. 

By 1909, one female and two males at the Cincinnati Zoo were the last passenger pigeons in the world.  The female named Martha, the very last passenger pigeon in the world died on September 1, 1914.

Martha was mounted by taxidermists, and it’s on display at the Smithsonian Museum today in Washington, DC.

Unlike many other extinct species, we actually have many samples of genetic material from passenger pigeons. 

Genetic analysis of the diversity in the genes in the samples which are remaining indicates that the passenger pigeon might not have normally had such large populations that were found in the 19th century. 

One theory holds that the passenger pigeon might have been what is known as an “outbreak” species. An outbreak species is one that has massive swings in population size, like a plague of locusts. 

According to this theory, passenger pigeons didn’t always have such large numbers as they couldn’t support those sorts of numbers permanently. They would be too destructive to forests. 

The large numbers in the 19th century might have for the same reason why there were so many bison. There was a large die-off of native people in the centuries prior due to disease, which resulted in higher than normal populations of some species. 

So, as Europeans began to settle and move west, they encountered the pigeon population at its peak. When the population began to naturally decline, it was exacerbated by hunting and loss of habitat, which drove the population into the ground, causing its extinction. 

The is one final thing I should address about the passenger pigeon, and that is its future. 

You might not think that an extinct species has a future, but because the passenger pigeon only went extinct about 100 years ago and because we have a reasonable amount of DNA, some think it is possible in the near future to bring the species back. 

This is assuming that the passenger pigeon could reproduce with small numbers, which didn’t appear to be the case in the late 19th century. The pigeons at the Cincinnati Zoo never reproduced in captivity. 

Even if the issue of reproduction could be solved, it isn’t known if the habitat which exists today would be sufficient for a population to thrive. 

If there was anything good to come out of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, it was a greater awareness of how humans affected the natural world and increased efforts to protect endangered species. 

The loss of the passenger pigeon was best expressed by the naturalist Aldo Leopold. In 1947 he spoke at the unveiling of a memorial in Wisconsin at what was once one of the largest passenger pigeon nesting areas. He said,

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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