by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
A male passenger pigeon that Oak found in a taxidermy shop in
NYC when he was ten years old.
One of the saddest and most amazing stories of how humans killed off one species is the story of the Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius. This beautiful dove nested together in huge colonies. A flock flying over could stretch more than a mile wide and 300 miles long, containing one or two billion birds that darkened the sky for several days. It was estimated that when Europeans arrived in the 1600s, there were three to five billion passenger pigeons in North America! In the spring they would migrate from the south to their nesting grounds in New England, New York, Ohio, and areas around the southern Great Lakes. Each female laid only one egg a year in a flimsy nest made of sticks. The birds fed on acorns, chestnuts and beech nuts from the great tracts of woodlands that made up eastern and central North America, long before human settlers cut down most of the forests. Like the nesting colonies, their roosting sites were huge. They could cover areas five miles wide by twelve miles long. In the nesting colonies, a single tree could hold up to a hundred nests!
Why were there so many passenger pigeons? It was probably because of the lack of natural predators, other than a few hawks and eagles. The Native American Indians caught some pigeons in large nets, and the early settlers in New England learned to do the same, but few birds were taken in relation to the billions that were here. The young birds, called squabs, were a great delicacy to eat, and were easily shaken out of their nests.
Later in time, pigeon meat became more and more popular. So by the 1800s, the commercial slaughter of passenger pigeons had developed on a huge scale. The birds were shot and netted in their colonies, and the squabs were shaken from the trees. They were packed in barrels and shipped down the rivers to the eastern cities, and later sent by the boxcar load as railroads were developed. In New York City in 1805, a pair of passenger pigeons sold for two cents. Slaves and servants in 18th- and 19th century America often saw no other kind of meat.
The famous bird artist, John James Audubon, described the tremendous flocks of passenger pigeons, but he also commented on the preparations for slaughter at a roosting site, where pigeons were even fed to fatten 300 hogs that had been driven 100 miles to the site by two farmers. Audubon saw large piles of birds that had already been killed.
By 1850, many noticed that passenger pigeons were decreasing in numbers, but the commercial slaughter continued unchecked. It even increased to a greater level after the American Civil War as more railroads were built. In 1874, one million pigeons were sent from Oceana County in Michigan to the eastern markets. By the late 1880s the numbers of passenger pigeons fell rapidly, so by the 1890s the last birds were seen in the wild. By 1900 they were gone, extinct by the hand of humans. The last-known passenger pigeon, a female named “Martha,” died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
Go online and type in “passenger pigeon,” and you’ll be blown away by all the stories. As a naturalist, I’ve always been sad that I never had a chance to see these birds alive in the wild. Think about this, and please learn to cherish and respect all of nature’s creatures.
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 499-3647.