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Passenger Pigeon

WBCA Mission Statement

Wild Bird Conservation Advocates is an alliance of conservationists and bird lovers who are dedicated to the protection of wild birds through habitat preservation and management. The scope of these conservation efforts ranges from backyard feeding programs to the setting aside of national preserves for the protection of wild bird habitat. We are active in petitioning our government at all levels for the enactment of legislation that would assist in the perpetuation of this cause. We are not an organization but rather an association of like minded people who strive to further our cause through community and political activism. We communicate with each other primarily through email and our e-list, Wild Bird Conservation Advocates @ Yahoo! Groups.


The Finality of Extinction

"When the last invdividual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."
      - C. William Beebe

A Lesson to be Learned from Extinction

In 1813 during a trip down the Ohio River, John James Audubon observed a spectacle that is incomprehensible in today's world of environmenal reduction. Passing flocks of Passenger Pigeons darkened the sky for as far as his eye could see. Audubon wrote of the spectacle in his journal:

I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had, undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose... Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.

During Audubon's time as a young naturalist and painter in early nineteenth century America, the Passenger Pigeon was estimated to number in the billions of birds. By the time of his death in 1851, populations of the birds were in drastic decline, and by the end of that century, they were all but gone. The last captive specimen of a Passenger Pigeon (named Martha after Martha Washington) died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914, the last surviving individual of a specie whose numbers once staggered the imagination.

But what is the lesson to be learned from the passing of the Passenger Pigeon? The extinction of this magnificent species is a poignant example of what happens when the interests of man clash with the interests of nature. It is believed that this species once constituted 25 to 40 per cent of the total bird population of the United States. It is estimated that there were 3 billion to 5 billion passenger pigeons at the time Europeans discovered America. While it is clear from a historical perspective that the decimation of the Passenger Pigeon was due in no small part to large scale, commercial hunting of the species for its meat, the really significant factor that started the bird on its rapid decline was loss of habitat.

The Passenger Pigeon was a bird of mixed hardwood forests. The birds depended on the huge forests for their spring nesting sites, for winter "roosts," and for food. The mainstays of the passenger pigeon's diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests. Worms and insects supplemented the diet in spring and summer.

In the winter the birds established "roosting" sites in the forests of the southern states. Each "roost" often had such tremendous numbers of birds so crowded and massed together that they frequently broke the limbs of the trees by their weight. In the morning the birds flew out in large flocks scouring the countryside for food. At night they returned to the roosting area. Their scolding and chattering as they settled down for the night could be heard for miles. When the food supply became depleted or the weather conditions adverse, the birds would establish a new roosting area in a more favorable location.

The migratory flights of the passenger pigeon were spectacular. The birds flew at an estimated speed of about sixty miles an hour. Observers reported the sky was darkened by huge flocks that passed overhead. These flights often continued from morning until night and lasted for several days.

The time of the spring migration depended on weather conditions. Small flocks sometimes arrived in the northern nesting areas as early as February, but the main migration occurred in March and April. The nesting sites were established in forest areas that had a sufficient supply of food and water available within daily flying range.

Since no accurate data were recorded on the passenger pigeon, it is only possible to give estimates on the size and population of these nesting areas. A single site might cover many thousands of acres and the birds were so congested in these areas that hundreds of nests could be counted in a single tree. A large nesting in Wisconsin was reported as covering 850 square miles, and the number of birds nesting there was estimated at 136,000,000.

The nests were loosely constructed of small sticks and twigs and were about a foot in diameter. A single, white, elongated egg was laid per nesting. The incubation period was from twelve to fourteen days. Both parents shared the duties of incubating the egg and feeding the young.

The young bird was naked and blind when born, but grew and developed rapidly. When feathered it was similar in color to that of the adult female, but its feathers were tipped with white, giving it a scaled appearance. It remained in the nest about fourteen days, being fed and cared for by the parent birds. By this time it had grown large and plump and usually weighed more than either of its parents. It had developed enough to take care of itself and soon fluttered to the ground to hunt for its food.

Authorities differ as to how many times the passenger pigeon nested in a season. The general opinion was that the birds normally nested twice in a season, but this can neither be proved nor disproved since no accurate records of nestings were made.

During the late summer the flocks of passenger pigeons frequently moved about at random in the northern forests in search of food, but as fall approached and temperature changes became sharp the flocks of passenger pigeons began their migration to the southern wintering areas.

Because the passenger pigeon congregated in such huge numbers, it needed large forests for its existence. When the early settlers cleared the eastern forests for farmland, the birds were forced to shift their nesting and roosting sites to the forests that still remained. As their forest food supply decreased, the birds began utilizing the grain fields of the farmers. The large flocks of passenger pigeons often caused serious damage to the crops, and the farmers retaliated by shooting the birds and using them as a source of meat. However, this did not seem to seriously diminish the total number of birds.

The notable decrease of passenger pigeons started when professional hunters began netting and shooting the birds to sell in the city markets. Although the birds always had been used as food to some extent, even by the Indians, the real slaughter began in the 1800s.

There were no laws restricting the number of pigeons killed or the way they were taken. Because the birds were communal in habit, they were easily netted by using baited traps and decoys. The birds were shot at the nesting sites, young squabs were knocked out of nests with long sticks, and pots of burning sulphur were placed under the roosting trees so the fumes would daze the birds and they would fall to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed for private consumption and for sale on the market, where they often sold for as little as fifty cents a dozen.

By 1850 the destruction of the pigeons was in full force, and by 1860 it was noticed that the numbers of birds seemed to be decreasing, but still the slaughter continued.

One of the last large nestings of passenger pigeons occurred at Petoskey, Michigan, in.1878. Here 50,000 birds per day were killed and this rate continued for nearly five months. When the adult birds that survived this massacre attempted second nestings at new sites, they were soon located by the professional hunters and killed before they had a chance to raise any young.

The concerned voices of conservationists had little effect in stopping the slaughter. Finally a bill was passed in the Michigan legislature making it illegal to net pigeons within two miles of a nesting area, but the law was weakly enforced and few arrests were made for violations.

By the early 1890s the passenger pigeon had almost completely disappeared. It was now too late to protect them by passing laws. In 1897 a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature asking for a ten-year closed season on passenger pigeons. This was a completely futile gesture as the birds still surviving, as lone individuals, were too few to reestablish the species.

The passenger pigeon's technique of survival had been based on mass tactics. There had been safety in its large flocks which often numbered hundreds of thousands of birds. When a flock of this size established itself in an area, the number of local animal predators (such as wolves, foxes, weasels, and hawks) was so small compared to the total number of birds that little damage could be inflicted on the flock as a whole.

This colonial way of life became very dangerous when man became a predator on the flocks. When the birds were massed together, especially at a nesting site, it was easy for man to slaughter them in such huge numbers that there were not enough birds left to successfully reproduce the species.

The interests of civilization, with its forest clearing and farming, were diametrically opposed to the interests of the birds which needed the huge forests to survive. The passenger pigeons could not adapt themselves to existing in small flocks. When their interests clashed with the interests of man, civilization prevailed. The wanton slaughter of the birds only sped up the process of extinction. The converting of forests to farmland would have eventually doomed the passenger pigeon.

The one valuable result of the extinction of the passenger pigeon was that it aroused public interest in the need for strong conservation laws. Because these laws were put into effect, we have saved many other species of our migratory birds and wildlife.


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