The great extermination: Passenger pigeons once filled the skies, but we killed them all

How humans extinguished the most plentiful bird in the world in a mere four decades


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When a creature becomes extinct, we are left with whatever essence of its existence can be conveyed through science, art and the written word. In the case of the passenger pigeon, a prolific and gregarious migratory bird of North America’s eastern and central forests, we’ve been trying to preserve it in memory for a century now.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction. The species’ four-decade decline from billions upon billions to none concluded when a captive bird named Martha died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914.

Martha’s remains were packed in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where she was stuffed and mounted. Last week, the Smithsonian opened an exhibit on the passenger pigeon and other extinct North American birds and put Martha on display for the first time since 1999.

Skillfully crafted taxidermy mounts of passenger pigeons, such as Martha, continue to convey the bird’s superficial resemblance to the still-plentiful mourning dove, while documenting notable differences in size, plumage and eye color.

The red-eyed passenger pigeon was 50 percent larger and considerably more colorful than the brown-eyed dove. The bird’s size and abundance made it an important source of food for humans. Male passenger pigeons, following the evolutionary dictum that favors bright plumage to attract females, bore copper-colored breast feathers and enough slate-blue feathers on their heads, backs and wings for the birds to sometimes be called “blue pigeon.”

The bright male vs. the drab female dichotomy is well captured in the portrait of the passenger pigeon that John James Audubon painted in Pittsburgh in 1824. The subjects of this life-sized work appear perched on adjacent bare tree branches, with the female feeding the male.

The artist may have taken liberties in depicting behavior not noted by other observers, but his devotion to creating the iconic image is unquestionable. According to memoir notes of a witness, Audubon refused to paint a portrait of a prominent Pittsburgher because he did not want to interrupt his work on the passenger pigeons.

Passenger pigeons moved seasonally by the millions, heading northward in mid-March to nesting territories that stretched from the Ohio River Valley to the upper Great Lakes and eastward to the Atlantic coast, then southward in the early fall into territory that spanned the continent from Texas eastward.

The species’ proper name reflects this behavior. “Passenger pigeon” is a corruption of early French settlers’ reference to the birds as pigeon de passage, which, as with the bird’s scientific name, ectopistes migratorius, roughly translates as “wandering migrator.”

Observers of passenger pigeon movements have described passing flocks shaped like broad ovals and irregular sheets, miles-long and multi-tiered streams, thick horizon-spanning columns that “undulated like a giant aerial serpent.”

Audubon wrote of traveling through Kentucky in 1813 as a flock passed overhead for three days: “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 continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose …”

Fueled by the continent’s verdant landscape — particularly by beechnuts, acorns and other tree seeds — passenger pigeon flocks operated like a biological storm, gleaning every scrap of potential food from feeding areas and depositing thick layers of droppings wherever they roosted.

Daily movements to and away from communal roost and nesting sites also created impressive displays of flight. For observers on the ground, the coordinated maneuvers of a flock turning in unison would highlight the differently colored plumage on the birds’ backs and breasts. A flock’s back and forth transformation from dark azure to tones of rusty copper is something we now can only imagine.

A spring migration near Pittsburgh in 1875 was large enough to be termed “streams” of birds, but within a decade flocks were notable if they numbered in the low hundreds.

In “Birds of Western Pennsylvania,” published in 1940, W. E. Clyde Todd, then curator of ornithology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, devoted seven pages to a species that he conceded, “I have never seen alive.” Relying on extensive quotes from earlier accounts, he detailed the mass slaughter at vast communal nest sites of both adult birds and the flightless young known as squabs. Todd acknowledged the problem that the species posed for agriculture and how the cutting of North America’s great forests eventually would have “entailed the passing of the pigeon,” but still he called the bird’s extinction “a blot on our civilization that can never be erased.”

Todd’s opinion echoes in “A Feathered River Across the Sky,” a recent book by Chicago-area naturalist Joel Greenberg that is subtitled “The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.” The work’s broad scope runs as far back from Martha’s demise as the implications of passenger pigeon bones excavated from prehistoric deposits at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County. A chapter profiling the widespread use of passenger pigeons as targets for shooting competitions drew critical remarks from a reviewer who cited the vital role that participants in shooting sports played in the American conservation movement. Adoption of conservation principles in laws and public attitudes came too late for the great flocks.

The wild pigeon was doomed by its status as a food commodity in an industrialized economy that featured large urban markets and increasingly efficient rail and telegraph links to the farthest reaches of its range. Writing about an industrial-scale attempt to gather nesting birds in Michigan in 1878, Mr. Greenberg writes:

“It was as if oil had been discovered, for the birds were the center of an industry and their presence turned the region into a boomtown complete with hundreds of pigeoners from all over the country; pigeon dealers and agents; hordes of nearby Indians looking for work; pluckers, schuckers, pickers and packers; clerks to keep track …”

A century after Martha’s demise, the most concise answer as to why our landscape lacks passenger pigeons can be found in the distilled language of poetry: “The land was ours before we were the land’s” wrote Robert Frost in “The Gift Outright.”

Careless exploitation often precedes careful conservation. In the case of the passenger pigeon, conservation arrived too late, and the final outcome was a dead bird in a cage.

Patrick McShea is an educator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History (mcsheap@carnegiemnh.org). Project Passenger Pigeon Pittsburgh, organized by various local institutions, will be mounting passenger pigeon and extinction–related public programs, visual displays, art exhibitions and performances this fall (passengerpigeonpittsburgh.org).


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