The Passenger Pigeon – Gone Forever From the Face of the Earth
Just a little over a century ago, the Passenger Pigeon was the most numerous species of bird on Earth. In the Eastern United States they numbered in the billions, more than all other species of North American birds combined! They flew in enormous flocks that filled the sky and sometimes extended for miles. Their nesting sites covered hundreds of square miles of forest, each tree holding dozens of birds.
Not only were the sheer numbers of the pigeons spectacular, the speed at which the pigeons flew was also remarkable. It is estimated that they could travel at almost 60 miles (96km) per hour!. The population of the Passenger Pigeon started declining with the European colonization of North America. As the forests were cleared and converted to farmland, their habitat began to disappear. But, by far the biggest reason for the decline, was hunting by man. Many passenger pigeons were shot for their excellent meat. However, untold thousands were shot for ‘sport’. In one competition a participant had to kill 30,000 pigeons just to be considered for a prize. They were shot, netted, and blasted out of trees with an early prototype of the machine gun.
By 1896 there were only 250,000 passengers pigeons remaining in one single flock. But still they were not safe. The newly erected telegraph lines allowed a large group of hunters to communicate with each other. On a spring day in April they descended on the flock. At the end of the day the carnage was devastating: 200,000 carcasses, 40,000 mutilated, thousands of chicks destroyed or left to predators. Less than 5,000 birds survived.
The last legitimate record of a wild Passenger Pigeon was in 1900 in Ohio. This bird was shot and its remains are still in the Ohio State Museum. A few individuals lingered on into the early part of the century in captivity. In 1909 the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens had the three remaining birds, two males and a female. By 1910 only the female was left. This last bird to survive was affectionately called Martha , after the wife of George Washington, the first president and “father” of the United States.
On September 1, 1914, at 1:00 in the afternoon, Martha died at the age of 29.
This is possibly the only instance in history where we know the exact moment of a specie’s extinction. It took only 50 years for man to exterminate the passenger pigeon.
“When an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone.” John J. Audubon, on the Passenger Pigeon.
Our thanks to Tony Schenk for the above information.
A mysterious signal would prompt all to begin the process of procreation in unison.
The Passenger’s migration north over the great lakes was extremely dangerous. If night fell before the passage was completed, the great flocks went into a panic, their eyes not accustomed to seeing in the dark. They would begin to circle in despair or follow the light of the moon until they fell, exhausted, into the dark waters below.
- Allan W. Eckert, The Silent Sky: The Incredible Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon
“Like a mind stretched by a new idea or experience, you will not be the same after reading this elegant story. The author takes great care not to anthropomorphize the Passenger Pigeon. But even so, man’s incredible capacity for short sightedness and cruelty blazes through the objective prose. An important work–every thinking person should read The Silent Sky. Beautifully written.” (Rayb)