The passenger pigeon flew with grace, speed, and agility. It had thrived in North America for at least 100,000 years. The bird had a small head and neck. The wedge-shaped tail was elongated. The wingspan was broad, the wings were pointed and powered by large breast muscles that gave it capability for prolonged flight. The average length of the bird was 40 cm.
It is estimated that in 1500, when Europeans first arrived in North America, passenger pigeons numbered four billion and made up 33% of the total bird population. By 1855 passenger pigeons were still the most abundant bird in North America. Their migrations took hours to pass overhead. Naturalist A.W. Schorger estimated that in 1871 one of their nesting sites, that covered 850 square miles of Wisconsin’s sandy oak barrens, was home to 136 million breeding adults.
Passenger pigeons needed large forests as they congregated in such vast numbers. When the early settlers cleared the eastern forests for farmland, the birds were forced to shift their nesting and roosting sites to the remaining forests. As the forest mass decreased so did their food supply. The birds then started feeding on crops. In order to protect their produce, the farmers retaliated by shooting the birds and using them as food.
The decimation of the passenger pigeon population started in earnest when hunting them for sale as meat became an industry. Commercial hunters began netting and shooting the birds to sell in the city markets. Although the birds had always been used as food to some extent, even by the Indians, the real slaughter began in the second half of the 1800s.
These birds were tasty and their arrival guaranteed an abundance of food. The flocks were so thick that hunting was easy. Even just using a long pole one could knock a few low-flying birds down. It was after 1865 when two technological developments set in motion this pigeon’s extinction. These were the rolling out of the telegraph and the railroad. This enhanced infrastructure allowed the commercial exploitation of the pigeon industry to boom as commercial hunters could learn quickly about new nesting sites and could follow the flocks around the continent. These birds no longer had anywhere to hide.
They shot the pigeons, trapped them with nets, torched their roosts and asphyxiated them with burning sulphur. They attacked the birds with rakes, pitchforks, and potatoes. They poisoned them with whiskey-soaked corn. Ultimately, the pigeons’ survival strategy of flying in huge flocks to ward off predators proved their undoing. Humans went into overkill as we have done so many times in past millennia to numerous now extinct species. The nightmare of overkill and impaired reproduction brought the passenger pigeon species to its knees. If you kill a species faster than they can reproduce, the end is a mathematical certainty.
By the mid-1890s, wild flock sizes numbered in the dozens rather than the hundreds of millions. Then they disappeared altogether, except for three captive breeding flocks spread across the Midwest. The last known wild victim was a female pigeon which was shot in Pike County, Ohio, in 1900. Even as the pigeons’ numbers crashed, “there was virtually no effort to save them,” says Joel Greenberg, a research associate with Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. “People just slaughtered them more intensely. They killed them until the very end.”
One of the last large breeding gatherings of passenger pigeons occurred at Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878. The hunters closed in and every day killed 50,000 birds. This rate of slaughter continued for nearly five months – that is around seven and a half million birds. When the adult birds that survived this massacre attempted a second nesting at new sites, they were soon located by the commercial hunters who killed them before they had a chance to raise their young.
On September 1, 1914, the last known 29 year old female captive passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo. The passenger pigeon species went from billions to extinct in just 50 years. The rhetoric of the 19th century political elites and business lobbies rings familiar. The spokesmen for the industry that paid people to kill these birds said, “If you restrict the killing, people will lose their jobs”. This was a lie then as it is today.
This article was published in the Senior Times of the Times of Malta on the 21st August 2020
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