Monday, April 1, 2013

The Passenger Pigeon

Martha, the last passenger pigeon before her death
in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

How the most abundant bird in North America went extinct is a story of mass slaughter on a scale even greater than that of the bison. It has been nearly a century since we lost the passenger pigeon, and it remains an example of nature's abundance and humanity's ability to exhaust it.
   Early Europeans in North America often commented on the vast numbers of blue and orange, long-tailed, graceful and fast pigeons in the country. One of the first Virginia settlers wrote "There are wild pigeons in winter beyond number or imagination, myself have seen three or four hours together flocks in the air, so thick that they shadowed the sky from us."
   As late as 1854, a New York resident wrote that "There would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another." Other reports describe flocks a mile wide flying overhead for four or five hours at a time during their migration to their breeding areas. The flocks were packed so thickly that 30 or 40 birds could be brought down with one shot and many were killed simply by hitting them with sticks as they flew over hilltops.
   Passenger pigeons bred in large colonies, with up to 100 nests in a single tree. Branches broke and whole trees collapsed by the sheer weight of roosting birds. Nesting colonies could cover many hundred of square kilometers of forest. Nests were made of small twigs loosely packed. Usually, one egg was laid and tended to by both parents up until about two weeks after it hatched. Then the chick would be abandoned, still unable to fly. The whole flock would leave, and the chicks would drop to the ground. After a few days, the chicks would begin to fly and take care of themselves.
   The best guess to the peak number of passenger pigeons in North America is about 5 billion individuals, or about the same amount as the total number of birds found today in the U.S. One reason the passenger pigeon existed in such large numbers was the lack of natural predators apart from eagles and hawks. They were, however, surprisingly vulnerable to humans. Their habit of nesting in vast colonies and migrating in huge flocks made them very easy to attack. The birds fed mainly on acorns, chestnuts and beech nuts in the woodlands of North America, so as these forests were steadily harvested, the passenger pigeon was left with shrinking habitat and food supplies. The Indians captured the pigeons in large nets and by the 1630s the settlers of New England were doing the same. The young squabs were considered a great delicacy and they were hunted for their feathers as well.

   For the first 200 years after the Europeans arrived, the number of pigeons did not decline much, but after 1830 the practice of using live pigeons for trap shooting began. One resident in Dubuque, Iowa, netted as many as 1,500 birds in one morning and sold them alive for ten cents each for trapshooting. The crippled birds were killed and sold by the barrel, which went for a dollar on the market in Chicago. About 250,000 a year were being killed this way by the 1870s.

   The population had been reduced by the 1850s but was still several billion strong. The real onslaught began with the onset of large-scale commercial hunting carried out by well-organized trappers and shippers in order to supply cities on the east coast with a cheap source of meat. It began once railways linked the Great Lakes area with New York in the early 1850s. With the coming of the telegraph, the locations of flocks could be determined, and the birds were relentlessly hunted. By 1855 300,000 pigeons a year were being sent to New York alone. The worst of the mass slaughter took place during the 1860s and 1870s. The scale of the operation was incredible, yet perfectly legal and very profitable. In 1869, Van Buren County, Michigan, sent 7,500,000 birds to the east. But by 1880, numbers had been severely reduced, and a total of "only" 500,000 birds were shipped east from Michigan.
   The last nesting birds were reported in the Great Lakes region in the 1890s and by 1900, they were all gone. Some remained in captivity, but it was just a matter of time. The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. Who could have dreamed that in such short order a species that was once the most numerous bird on Earth would be gone forever? John James Audubon wrote this about 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." How many more species will some day only exist as stuffed specimens in museums?

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