- Created on Sunday, 05 October 2014 13:06
Passenger Pigeons: Gone, But Not Forgotten
During the month of September, we celebrated a grim centennial. On September 1, 1914 Martha, the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, fell from her perch at the Cincinnati Zoo and died at age 29. Of course, this species was doomed long before 1914. The last surviving male died in captivity in 1910, leaving Martha to contemplate her lonely fate. In fact, after 1900 the only Passenger Pigeons extant survived in captivity. Wild Pigeons had gone missing late in the 19th century.
How could this happen? How could a species that was once so abundant, numbering in the billions, disappear completely during the span of a human’s lifetime? In the early 19th century 3 billion or more Passenger Pigeons inhabited North America in the land east of the Mississippi River, creating an awe-inspiring spectacle as their huge flocks moved from place to place in search of food. In 1813 Audubon described one such flock in Henderson, Kentucky. Here is Audubon’s description:
…the birds poured in in countless multitudes….The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continuous buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.
JJ Audubon, Library of America, 2001
Audubon calculated that there were over a billion birds in one of these incredible flocks.
Persecution of the Passenger Pigeons by humans was the main factor contributing to their demise. Wild Pigeons were hunted relentlessly by commercial hunters and amateurs alike. Audubon described one such “hunt” at a roosting site on the banks of the Green River in Kentucky. Hundreds of people gathered for the slaughter, surrounding the “city” of roosting pigeons. Trees were cut down or set on fire, birds were suffocated with fuming sulfur pots, thousands were knocked down by polemen, and shotguns tore holes in the dense flock knocking scores of pigeons to the ground with a single shot. The dead, wounded, and mangled pigeons were piled up in heaps, packed into barrels 300 birds to the barrel, and carted off to market. Any remaining birds on the ground were fed to the hogs. Modernity played its role in the carnage. The telegraph communicated the location of these gigantic roosts instantaneously. In addition, railroads connected rural hunting sites with urban restaurants, inns, and hotels. The pigeons never had a chance. By the early 1890’s the population of Passenger Pigeons was reduced from billions to perhaps a few million birds in widely scattered flocks.