Passenger Pigeon

Date in History: Late 1800’s.

Just five hundred years ago, passenger pigeons comprised about 40% of all birds in North America. Literally billions of these birds lived throughout the eastern half of North America. The name “passenger pigeon” comes from the sense of being a “passer-through” in reference to the wide area traveled by the birds.

Passenger pigeons were extremely gregarious birds, flocking and nesting together in huge numbers. Early settlers tell of witnessing flocks up to a mile wide and hundreds of miles long, so dense that they actually darkened the sky for hours upon hours as they flew overhead. They bred in large colonies that could cover hundreds of square miles of forest and they could pack up to one hundred nests in a single tree.

The females laid only one egg each year and both parents incubated the egg and tended the chick. However, parental duties only went so far and after about two weeks the chick, still unable to fly, would be abandoned as the whole flock departed. The chicks would eventually drop to the ground (the lucky chick had a low nest!) and after a few days would begin to fly and care for themselves.

Unfortunately, the fact that passenger pigeons flocked and nested in very large groups made them easy targets for humans. Hunters originally killed the birds for food, but by the 19th century it had changed over to sport, if you can call it that. Pigeoneers set traps to catch hundreds at a time during the nesting season. Hunting competitions only encouraged the excess. In one contest, a participant had to kill 30,000 passenger pigeons just to be considered for a prize.

The last wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1900 in Ohio by an eight-year-old boy with a BB gun. The very last passenger pigeon on earth died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914 at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. It is possibly the only instance in which we know the exact time of an extinction of a species.

In 1947 the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology dedicated a memorial to the passenger pigeon at Wyalusing State Park, a fitting spot since the birds’ favorite nesting spot in Wisconsin was the southwestern part of the state. Conservationist Aldo Leopold gave a moving speech at the dedication. “We meet here to commemorate the death of a species, he lamented. This monument symbolizes our sorrow. There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather; they live forever by not living at all.”

 

This excerpt aired on the radio as an Historic Minute on 02/14/2005.

Five hundred years ago, about 40% of all birds in North America were passenger pigeons. Literally billions of these birds lived throughout the eastern half of North America. Early settlers tell dramatic stories of skies darkening for days at a time as the gregarious birds flocked and nested in large groups.

Hunters originally hunted the birds for food, but by the 19th century it had changed over to sport, if you can call it that. Pigeoneers set traps to catch hundreds at a time during the nesting season. Hunting competitions only encouraged the excess. In one contest, a participant had to kill 30,000 passenger pigeons just to be considered for a prize.

The very last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. It is possibly the only instance in which we know the exact time of an extinction of a species.

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