Friday, 27 July 2012

The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon

                             The extinction of any species, either by accident or design, is never a Good Thing (except, maybe, Smallpox, but technically that isn’t extinct anyway), but the reasons for some extinctions just boggle the mind. Take the current threat to tigers, rhinos and sea-horses for instance, species in danger of extinction because they are being poached for the ingredients of traditional oriental ‘medicine’ – no more than hokum practiced by quacks on the gullible. Indefensible. But of all the sorry stories in the whole sorry history of man’s extirpation of other species, the very sorriest has to be that of the Passenger Pigeon. 

The Passenger Pigeon

Imagine, if you can, the immense size of the population of Passenger Pigeon. One estimate puts it at between three and five billion individuals. 

Hunting the Flocks of Passenger Pigeons

Now a billion is currently held to be a thousand million, (although I was taught that a billion was a million million, but that’s by the bye). Taking the short form, the thousand million version, a billion 1,000,000,000 - or 10 to the power 9 – that is 109. A billion seconds is just short of 32 years, so the average Western lifespan in between two and three billion seconds. A billion minutes is just short of two thousand years - that means a billion minutes ago, Christianity was a new religion. A billion hours ago, mankind was living in the Stone Age. A billion days ago, mankind’s early ancestors were wandering the African savannah, and mankind didn’t yet exist. A billion months ago, the dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous period ruled the earth. A billion years ago, the very earliest multicellular eukaryotes were beginning to emerge from (in the mandatory phrase to be used in explanations of this kind) the primeval slime. And 13.7 billion years ago, the universe began. A billion is a big number. Really big. 

Passenger Pigeon

Between three and five billion Passenger Pigeons was a lot of Passenger pigeons. Flocks of them a mile wide and three hundred miles long were said to take fourteen hours to fly past an observer. Audobon says that as they flew by, the sun was blotted out. They were, simply, innumerable. With the possible exception of the swarms of locusts, they were most populous creatures in North America. 

Passenger Pigeon on its nest

So what harm, you might say, in using them as a food source? There are so many of them, a few thousand – hell, even a few million – wouldn’t even scratch the surface of something so plentiful. Plentiful – these things are inexhaustible! Take as many as you want. Have you seen the size of the flocks – they’re like the stars in the night sky? So, take them they did, for food and for feathers. 

$1 a dozen

A dozen birds for a dollar was dear, a dozen for twenty-five cents was more like it. Passenger Pigeons were cheap food for slaves; they were so ubiquitous people got sick of eating them.  

Pigeon Net

“Unlimited netting, even during the entire nesting season, has resulted in sending over one million pigeons to market from a single roost in one year, leaving perhaps as many more wounded birds and starving, helpless, naked squabs behind, until the poultry stalls became so glutted with pigeons that the low price per barrel scarcely paid for their transportation, and they were fed to the hogs.” 
Neltje Blanchan Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted 1904. 

Report on the shipments of Passenger Pigeons

At one time 50,000 birds a day, for a period of five months, were shipped by boxcar to New York. “In 1848 Massachusetts gravely passed a law protecting the netters of wild pigeons from foreign interference! There was a fine of $10 for damaging nets, or frightening pigeons away from them” (Hornaday, p.13).   

Advert for Pigeon Shooting Match

‘Sporting’ competitions were staged, the winner was the one who shot the most birds with the least shots; birds were even caught and released before the guns to provide sufficient targets. 

Advert for Pigeon Trap

But there was something about Passenger Pigeons that people didn’t understand. Passenger Pigeons were essentially gregarious. The reason they gathered in flocks was a defence mechanism – if a few members of the flock were lost to predators, the whole flock survived. A wheeling flock would confuse the predator, and the weakest would be weeded out, whilst the fittest survived. 

Passenger Pigeons

And the flocks were necessary for the social conditions needed for the birds to breed. But as the flocks diminished, this balance was disturbed. By disrupting the pattern of successive generations, and by upsetting the optimum conditions for survival, the population went into decline. It was unable to sustain itself. A few perceptive individuals saw this disruption and warning bells were sounded, although, in the beginning, these went unheeded. When the early conservationists tried to get legislation passed to control the harvesting of the pigeons, they were given short shrift.   

Frontispiece - Our Vanishing Wild Life W T Hornaday 1913

“The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, travelling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here to-day and elsewhere to-morrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced”  
Report of a Select Committee of the Senate of Ohio 1857 

For goodness sake, that ‘ no ordinary destruction’. This was no ordinary destruction. It was extraordinary. But the powers that be weren’t convinced. They knew best, as they continue to do, and so the slaughter continued. The ornithological experts were dismissed as mere what-do-they-know ‘experts’ or cranks. And trade was trade. There was money to be made. (Does this sound faintly familiar? It damn well should). 

“As soon as it is ascertained in a town that the pigeons are flying numerously in the neighbourhood, the gunners rise en masse; the clap-nets are spread out on suitable situations, commonly on an open height in an old buckwheat field, four or five live pigeons, with their eyelids sewed up are fastened on a movable stick, a small hut of branches is fitted up for the fowler at the distance of forty or fifty yards. By the pulling of a string, the stick on which the pigeons rest is alternately elevated and depressed, which produces a flittering of their wings, similar to that of birds alighting. This being perceived by the passing flocks, they descend with great rapidity, and finding corn, buck-wheat, etc, strewed about, begin to feed, and are instantly, by the pulling of a cord, covered by the net. In this manner ten, twenty, and even thirty dozen have been caught at one sweep.” 
Our Vanishing Wildlife W T Hornaday 1913 

The evidence continued to accrue, but when the penny finally dropped, it was far too late. The expected annual flocks failed to appear. In 1878, a flock of about fifty million birds began nesting in Wisconsin, but hunters moved in and the flock was scattered. The shattered population continued to be reported as individual specimens, but there was no return to the great gatherings of the past. 


Rewards were offered in return for locating nesting pigeons, but these were birds that were gregarious roosters, and wouldn’t build an individual nest, as that was against their innate instincts. In addition, the strength-in-numbers survival strategy of the flocks was lost, and lone birds became easy prey for predators. The population fell like a house of cards, and nothing could stop the collapse. Birds continued to be seen, as they had a life span of about twenty years, but new birds were not being hatched to replace the older generations. Sightings became rarer and rarer, and eventually stopped altogether.  

Heroic Hunters (... and is that chap on the extreme left on his mobile?)

“The last wild specimen (so we believe) that ever will reach the hands of man, was taken near Detroit, Michigan, on Sept. 14, 1908” (Hornaday, p.14), although sightings were reported until the 1930s, which were probably mistakenly identified Mourning Doves, a closely related species. 

Passenger Pigeon

There were some captive birds still alive, but these all eventually died of old age. In 1908, there were just two males and a female, Martha, remaining, in Cincinnati Zoo. One of the males died in 1909, the other the following year. 

Obituary for Martha - Bird Lore Vol 16 1914

Martha died at 1 pm on September 1st 1914, the last of her species.

I have nothing to add.

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