Passenger Pigeon Apocalypse

Introduction by Anna Morris, Lead Environmental Educator

Three billion is the number of birds lost to North American populations in the last 50 years. It’s also a low-end estimate of the number of Passenger Pigeons that once lived on the North American continent. These birds were said to number so many that flights of them overhead could darken the sky. The fact that humans alone as a species were responsible for this devastating extinction is terrifying but, viewed from a certain angle, hopeful. 

Humans are capable of tremendous feats, and by coming together around the cause of conservation, we can turn this trend around for birds in the future. Read what author and friend of VINS Gene Walz has to say about the relevance of an extinct bird, the Passenger Pigeon, to our conservation efforts today. 

Passenger Pigeon Apocalypse, Written by Gene Walz, friend of VINS

Ectopistes migratorius (Linnaeus); Extinct; formerly an abundant migrant 

The story of the tragic demise of the Passenger Pigeon has been told and retold many times. Writing soon after the Passenger Pigeon’s complete disappearance in the wild, esteemed Winnipeg ornithologist George Atkinson described its extermination as the paragon of human selfishness, an act of “modified barbarism” rather than civilization. Over a century later, it is still difficult to read or write about the Passenger Pigeon without strong emotions.  

Emotions such as:  

Incredulity, because the Passenger Pigeon once numbered in the billions, as many as 3 to 5 billion – that’s billion with a “b”, representing a quarter of all the birds on the North American continent. It was likely the most numerous bird species on the entire planet. As late as 1871 a colony of 136 million birds was discovered nesting in central Wisconsin (where there is now a memorial placard in a rest area on the Interstate). Migrating flocks were said to darken the sky for entire days.  

Anger, because it was unfettered human greed that obliterated this ill-fated species, its breeding cycle totally disrupted by widespread annual slaughter. Hundreds of tons of pigeon carcasses were crammed into boxcars and shipped by rail to city markets and restaurants. Astonishingly, many were simply discarded. This continued unabated up to the last great nesting in Michigan in 1878, even as belated warnings of decline were being sounded.  

Sadness, because this prodigiously gregarious species, whose colonies once extended up to 1000 or more square kilometers, was finally extinguished with the lonely, pathetic death of Martha, the last known Passenger Pigeon, in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens on 1 September 1914. Although the species bred readily in captivity, the last captive birds were descendants of a single pair captured in 1888, so that inbreeding precluded any eleventh-hour miracle.  

Disappointment, because the Passenger Pigeon was a beautiful bird whose speed and grace in flight earned it such names as “blue meteor”. Chief Pokagon — poet, naturalist, and early critic of the pigeon hunters — claimed that it “was proverbial with our fathers that if the Great Spirit in His wisdom could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form and movement, He never did”.  

At 40 centimeters in length the Passenger Pigeon was markedly larger than a Mourning Dove, with a similar build including a long, pointed tail. The male, more richly colored than the female, had a slaty blue-gray head and upper body with a purplish iridescence on the neck; its throat and breast were a “rich russet vinaceous” color that shaded to orange-pink on the lower breast and then a white abdomen.  

The Passenger Pigeon was unique of voice, reportedly the only pigeon that “shricks and chatters and clucks instead of cooing”.  

The colonies of Passenger Pigeons in North America, stretching from New York to Wisconsin and northwards up to Hudson’s Bay in Canada, were legendary for their size and density — scores of miles long, with some trees sagging under the weight of hundreds of flimsy nests. Migrating birds arrived in May and remained until October. Voracious eaters of deciduous-forest mast in eastern North America, their nomadic movements and concentrated breeding revolved around the sporadic abundance of beech-mast, acorns and wild berries, but they also became significant agricultural pests.  

To see Passenger Pigeons now you have to go to a museum where eggs and skins are preserved. Places such as the University of California at Berkeley, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.  

From billions and billions of birds to a few preserved skins and eggs hidden away in museums; and it took less than half a century. What a record!  

If there is a lesson to be preached at an animal rights exhibit, it is not the simple one that we must not take natural abundance for granted. Passenger Pigeons were exterminated because they were easily slaughtered and were a profitable commodity. In an era when many species are endangered and the environment is under attack, we must make it difficult and expensive for profiteers to squander and deplete our natural resources. 

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