The Man-Made Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

by JoHarrington

It was once the most populous bird in the USA, perhaps even in the world. Migratory flocks a mile wide darkened the skies for days. Then it was hunted into extinction.

On September 1st, 1914, a bird named Martha died of old age in a Cincinnati aviary. She was twenty-nine years old, a good age for her kind.

Martha had been named after the wife of George Washington. It symbolized a vain hope by conservationists that she - along with the dozen or so of her siblings - would breed a new nation of birds.

But they refused to do so. One by one her kin passed away, until only Martha was left. When she died alone in her cage, she took her entire species with her.

Martha was the last of the passenger pigeons. Just fifty years previously, she would have been one of billions.

When Passenger Pigeons Ruled the North American Sky

Until the late 19th century, this was the commonly sighted bird in the USA and Canada. The mega-flocks passing overheard always caused a stir.

In 1813, ornithologist John James Audubon attempted to count the number of passenger pigeons in the Kentucky sky above him.

They flew so densely packed that he had no hope of discerning individual birds, let alone counting them. He settled for registering each flock with a dot in his notebook instead.

After just twenty minutes, he realized that this too was inadequate. There were simply too many. He quickly totted up the dots already in his book. There were 163 of them, and the passenger pigeons kept on coming.

The huge feathered river in the sky continued relentlessly passing for three whole days. The stragglers took a while longer. While they passed the air was filled with the sheer din of their squawks; their wings beating like thunder. Nothing could be heard over them.

In windy weather the passenger pigeons flew as low as 3.3ft. When it was calm, they soared as high as 1400ft. They reached speeds of 62mph.

Their droppings fell like snow. It piled up to a foot deep beneath their temporary roosts, deeper still where they congregated at nesting sites. But as they flew in those great migratory mega-flocks, all below rushed to take shelter or accept that they risked being covered.

Colossal columns of passenger pigeons stretched a mile wide, undulating, twisting, forming every conceivable shape in the air. Their numbers were so great that they blocked out the sun, causing darkness underneath.

'Happening to go ashore one charming afternoon, to purchase some milk at a house that stood near the river, and while talking with the people within doors, I was suddenly struck with astonishment at a loud rushing roar, succeeded by instant darkness, which, on the first moment, I took for a tornado about to overwhelm the house and every thing around in destruction.

The people observing my surprise, coolly said, 'It is only the pigeons!'

On running out I beheld a flock, thirty or forty yards in width, sweeping along very low, between the house and the mountain or height that formed the second bank of the river. These continued passing for more than a quarter of an hour, and at length varied their bearing so as to pass over the mountains, behind which they disappeared before the rear came up.'

Alexander Wilson American Ornithology

Biography of Alexander Wilson

Wilson was able to count enough of a sample to estimate the volume of the whole flock. He arrived at a figure of 2,230,272,000, but warned that it was a conservative number. He thought that there were many more than that.

One flock spotted in Ontario, in 1866, contained an estimated 3.5 billion passenger pigeons. If all the birds in the USA and Canada were counted together now, it still wouldn't beat the number of that species at the height of its population.

Yet forty-two years after that Ontario flock was sighted, the last wild passenger pigeon was shot by a man in Michigan, and stuffed for display.

Books about Passenger Pigeons

The bird became extinct in 1914, when the last passenger pigeon died in captivity. It took roughly fifty years for US hunters to wipe out over five billion birds.

Open Season on the North American Passenger Pigeon

The abundance of the bird made it fair game for any entrepreneur or sportsman with a shotgun. Unfortunately there were a lot of those in America.

If we could step back in time to around 1850, we would have a hard time convincing anyone that the passenger pigeon was on the brink of extinction. We'd be laughed out of the USA and Canada both.

But who could blame them? Mile wide mega-flocks of the birds were still darkening skies from the Rocky Mountains to the Eastern seaboard. It seemed incredible that they would all be gone by the turn of the century.

It IS incredible that such vast numbers were slaughtered in just a handful of decades.

The passenger pigeon had been hunted as food for as long as there were human beings in North America. Several First Native tribes fixed laws around when and where it was permissible to kill one. Nest sites were largely taboo, except where the juveniles flew away. Adult passenger pigeons could not be scared away from their traditional roosts.

In this way, the flocks were allowed to grow vast enough that the tribes thought they'd last forever.

Early European colonists weren't quite so careful in their husbandry of wildlife. Even so, they neither had the numbers nor the musket shot to cause too much damage directly. But indirectly was a different matter.

Pioneers crossing the country, and settlers founding their towns and cities, chopped down forests at an alarming rate. Wood was the primary building material. Anything else had to be shipped in from England at greatly inflated costs. North America swiftly switched from a largely forested continent to mostly plains.

By the nineteenth century, this had already had a detrimental effect on the passenger pigeons, who needed trees in order to roost and nest. But not so that anyone on the ground would notice. Those mega-flocks still ran into the billions.

The tipping point came around the middle of the century, when the populations of the big cities - like New York City - suddenly swelled due to boosted tides of immigration. This was the period when the coffin ships were bringing millions of starving Irish for a start.

Cheap food was needed quickly and in abundance, and passenger pigeons certainly fit the bill. It's commonly reported that a single arrow or musket ball, shot into a flock flying overhead, could bring down six birds. Once chain shot or tunnel nets were applied, then the bounty was much, much more.

People could get rich this way.  Passenger pigeons sold for between 12 and 50 cents a dozen - depending upon whether they were alive or dead (for freshness) - in the markets and eateries of NYC. A skilled netter could capture thirty dozen birds with one sweep.

In 1869, hunters from Hartford, Michigan, shipped a total of 11,880,000 passenger pigeons, over the course of just forty days. Those from a neighboring town weren't quite so proficient. They netted a mere 15,840,000 birds over two years.

It puts much into perspective, when you consider that the first lot stood to gain a potential $495,000 profit for just over a month's work.

It certainly explains why, in 1848, the state of Massachusetts made it a criminal offense to sabotage the hunt by frightening away the birds, or tamper with the nets of passenger pigeon hunters. The penalty was a $10 fine, at a time when the average wage was $7 a month (unless, of course, you hunted passenger pigeons).

Natural History of the Passenger Pigeon

Lessons from the extinction of the passenger pigeon led to the burgeoning conservation movements. It's still used as a cautionary tale today.

How Lobbyists for the Gunmen Condemned the Passenger Pigeon

Not everyone was blind to the consequences of killing the birds in such vast quantities. But their concerns were deemed as ludicrous.

You can practically hear the note of condescension in the response of an Ohio select committee report.

This was 1857 - fifty-seven years before the last passenger bird would die in captivity, thus rendering the species extinct - and a brave soul had submitted a bill to the State Legislature suggesting that the birds should be protected.

The response was a resounding 'no'.

"The passenger pigeon needs no protection." The Select Committee report read. "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."

Ten years later, the state of New York suddenly panicked and passed a law protecting the passenger pigeon within its borders. Until very recently, the region had regularly been visited by those mega-flocks, now they had become quite rare.

It was way too late for that piece of legislation. That entered the statute books in 1867, but by 1868, no wild passenger pigeons were to be found anywhere in the state.

By the latter part of the 19th century, it wasn't just entrepreneurs seeking to shoot these increasingly endangered birds. Hunting for sport had never really factored until now, but it emerged as the favorite pursuit of a growing 3% of the country.

These were people rich enough never to have had to hunt for food in their lives, and who could also afford musket shot and bullets to waste. The name of the game was to kill as many creatures as possible, then to either prepare the remains for display or leave them to rot.

They were also rich enough to lobby politicians, whenever laws were proposed to interfere with their sport. When Massachusetts rushed to pass legislation, in 1870, to stop the killing of passenger pigeons, lobbyists for the sportsman hunters forced a concession. There would be an 'open season' each year, when the birds were fair game.

The lobbyists were even more successful in Pennsylvania in 1878. There only the nesting sites were protected by law.

What nobody yet realized was that it was already too late. The passenger pigeon population had now dwindled beyond the point of no return. The birds wouldn't breed unless they were in colonies numbering in the thousands, and the mega-flocks were no more.

Passenger Pigeon Ornaments and Stamp

Remember North America's once most populous bird with these trinkets for the home.

Extinction! The Last of the Passenger Pigeons

Once voluminous, the passenger pigeons died out on September 1st, 1914, when Martha died in captivity in Cincinnati.

It had taken just twenty years to lose the gigantic flocks of passenger pigeons in the northern states of the USA and Canada.

The birds were largely gone completely from most regions, while others retained a few minuscule flocks. These were still being ruthlessly hunted.

Though several states had now passed some kind of protection laws, they weren't subject to actual prosecution. Thus they were generally ignored.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, news got out that the only place where substantial numbers of passenger pigeons still roosted was Louisiana.There the birds were viewed as the staple diet of black communities and the poor.

Entrepreneurial enterprises soon sprang up. Sportsman hunters would travel by train down to Louisiana with an escort. They would spend the whole day shooting as many passenger pigeons as they could, then relax in luxury accommodation during the evenings.

Protests were soon heard throughout Louisiana. Their passenger pigeon population decreased at an alarming rate, and the proceeds weren't even staying in the state. The hunting trip organizers were all from the north, as were the owners of the hostelries.

Soon it was a moot point. Louisiana had lost its allure along with its game. It wasn't worth a sportsman's time to travel there.

As for the rest of the USA, those tiny flocks had also diminished. Canada had long since stopped seeing passenger pigeons, and now they were rare south of the border too.

For a while, it was believed that a young Ohio boy named Press Clay Southworth had shot and killed the last wild passenger pigeon on March 22nd 1900. But then another was spotted by a Michigan huntsman in 1908. C. Campion immediately shot his bird and took his prize to the taxidermist.

Massive cash rewards were publicized, offered by conservationists and sportsmen alike, for any news of the bird anywhere in the country. Experts became tired of traipsing halfway across the country to look at yet another misidentified mourning dove.

No more reliable sightings were ever made in the wild.

The prices for eggs and display cases of stuffed passenger pigeons sky-rocketed. Collectors now realized the value of holding a souvenir of the soon-to-be-extinct bird. Yet there was still one last salvo to save them.

Professor Charles Otis Whitman, of the University of Chicago, had already assembled his aviary, in the last years of the 19th century. He now hoped that breeding them in captivity would ward off extinction.

In 1903, he had a dozen passenger pigeons - including Martha - but they soon died too. By 1906, he only had five. They would not breed. He tried introducing passenger pigeon eggs into the nests of rock doves. But that also failed.

By 1912, it was all over. Martha was the last passenger pigeon still living and she had no mate. When she died, on September 1st 1914, her species was officially extinct.

From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction

The launch of Project Passenger Pigeon as a call to arms to help those species which are endangered today.
Updated: 01/26/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/26/2014

Unfortunately, there's too much evidence to the contrary for me to attempt to argue that one. :(

Jo_Murphy on 01/26/2014

Thats how the human mind seems to work! Jo

JoHarrington on 01/26/2014

Oh gosh! I hadn't even thought of that. -.- (Triple sigh)

Jo_Murphy on 01/26/2014

I hope people don't start thinking that it isOK to make animals extinct because all we have to do is clone them back again. (Double sigh)

JoHarrington on 01/26/2014

Ember - Thank your for your insight into these issues. I did read something about there being enough DNA on file for the passenger pigeon to be cloned back into existence. But thousands would have to be cloned, because they wouldn't breed else. I did squirrel that away as a potential article for you to tell us all about. :D

Jo - Wow! That is downright ghastly. *sigh*

Jo_Murphy on 01/26/2014

Hi Jo,
Have you seen this?
Men gather on the shore to kill the beached whales. Ideally, most of the whales will strand far enough up on shore that it is unnecessary to secure them. However, those remaining in the shallows must be secured and hauled closer. Traditionally, this is done by driving a steel hook, or gaff, with a rope attached to it into the back of the whale. It is just ghastly! Jo

Ember on 01/26/2014

Wow, I'm surprised they went from an abundance to extinction in only 50 years. I feel like that is such a short amount of time. I don't actually know, though.

Lonesome George, a giant Galapagos tortoise died a couple years ago. I'd been following his story for years so that was very sad news for me. He was the last of his kind, result of hunting. Conservationists tried to get him to mate for a close-as-possible cross-species, but were unsuccessful.

I had a roommate in college whose home I visited once. They had a family room full of taxidermic exotic animals, which her grandfather paid thousands to hunt. I was shocked to learn that, for a price, it is legal to hunt endangered animals (example, polar bears. Still. :|). That really pisses me off. Apparently we're still struggling to learn our lesson, because: money. >:|

Although, our disruption of habitats, deforestation, etc., are doing a great deal of damage these days. We're likely losing more species to that than we ever did hunting. And, it is too late for many species.

If it is a natural selection that leads to a decreased vitality/eventual extinction of an animal- while sad- it is still a part of nature. When it is directly our fault, whether we caused a shift in an ecosystem (we are well on our way to an ecosystem collapse with the Great Reefs, which would endanger/drive to extinction many, many species), over-utilization of natural resources, or because of something like over-hunting, I think it is really just incredibly, unbelievably awful on our part.

Less sad-- a success story! Sea otters were hunted for their fur, which led to their endangerment (few hundred thousand, at least, to just over a thousand at lowest). Efforts in the past 100 or so years have seen great advances in colony sizes, and total number of colonies. California sea otters are still struggling, and overall sea otters are still endangered. There's a slight worry concerning the decreased genetic diversity, because there were so few remaining at their low. If a sea otter plague of sorts were to hit, the chances of a significant proportion of their pop being genetically resistant is painfully slim. But, as of now, they're growing and headed out of endangerment! Yay! One of the areas the CA otter was successfully reintroduced was Monterrey Bay. When I'm in the area, I have to go see them. The aquarium that supports them there is super rad, and they do a LOT in terms of conservation efforts, so I like supporting them. :D

JoHarrington on 01/25/2014

Ologsinquito - Oh wow! Thank you. :D

JoHarrington on 01/25/2014

WriterArtist - Until I started looking into this, I had no idea that such issues were happening in the world. I thought that the great extinctions all happened in the 19th century, when Europeans were being very arrogant and 'collections' were in fashion.

It is a truly sad thing that it's still going on.

ologsinquito on 01/25/2014

This is a beautifully written story about a sad chapter in American history. You vividly described the multitude of passenger pigeons and how dense there were in the skies. This is going on My Wizzley Writing Board.

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