passenger pigeon

Passenger Pigeon

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As we celebrate the Year of the Bird, we take a look back at one of North America's extinct birds, the passenger pigeon, which vanished in 1914, four years before the safe harbor of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Much of this information on market hunting and cuisine comes from Jennifer Price's book Flight Maps, which covers in fascinating detail the passenger pigeon and the human connection to this wonderful bird.

Artwork provided by Biodiversity Heritage Library

Artwork provided by Biodiversity Heritage Library

Ask any generation about the wildlife of their time: what sticks out as memorable? For those who lived through the DDT years, the rebound of raptors may be striking—bald eagles went from the brink here in Wisconsin and continent-wide to current breeding status in almost every county in the state. For those living through lean sandhill crane decades, their noisy and soulful return to marshlands across Wisconsin this past week is a reminder of the positive implications of conservation. Each of these birds went from abundance to scarcity, and back to abundance. For those early settlers of Wisconsin who witnessed a Civil War, they not only saw a nation divided, but also a bird that never reclaimed its mythical abundance—a bird they would not forget—the passenger pigeon.

Here at Faville Grove, we are lucky to have historical records and recollections of the passenger pigeon from Art Hawkins' notes from interviews he conducted for “A Wildlife History of Faville Grove,” published in 1940. These notes are striking in their treatment of the passenger pigeon. For each interviewee, Hawkins ran through the list of wildlife, from species of ducks to badgers to songbirds. His notes contain a sentence or two on each duck, hunting methods and stories for each mammal, and random musings on identifiable songbirds and their relative abundances. Yet, without fail, each early settler seems to have spoken at length about the passenger pigeon; if they themselves did not see the great flocks, they certainly had stories of relatives who had, and these paragraphs stand as the few local memories of a bird now lost.

Mr. Crump remembered the birds “forming a cloud before the sun.” To Mr. Scribner and many others, sowing the wheat seed (which boomed in Wisconsin for a time only to lead to catastrophe and eventually dairying) required two men, with one following the planter to cover the seed and save it from pigeons. These birds, according to Mr. Scribner, rolled across the wheat field like a huge ball, a smooth mass spinning forwards as birds from the rear replaced birds in the front. Mr. Cooper recalled flocks of millions of birds, and his father reportedly felled 23 birds in one shot, a hired hand dropping 18. Mr. Seaver is said to have seen pigeons land on a dead oak, only for the thousands of birds to break the limbs. Numerous others noted millions of birds that would block out the sun, and each of them would remark that a year or so later, the birds disappeared. Some heard of flocks in other parts of the state, but after nesting near London Marsh and Deerfield in 1878, the birds were never to be seen in the area again. What happened?

Smith Bennett, 1875

Smith Bennett, 1875

Of those 18th century inhabitants of North America, few east of the Mississippi could fail to recognize the passenger pigeon. For Native Americans like the Seneca, the passenger pigeons brought the tribe together during hunting—the birds provided food resources at a critical time when winter reserves dried up and spring plantings had yet to flourish. These communions allotted time to conduct tribal business, and thus the event became social, political, and economic. The indigenous inhabitants of eastern forests, from all indications, limited themselves to taking only pigeon squabs (newborn pigeons) during spring, which kept the adult breeding population intact.

Meanwhile, the mostly white inhabitants of the young nation enacted hunting that reflected their vision of the growing nation—limitless and independent. Shooting game, and especially pigeons, became a new world act. Free from the game preserves of the European elite, those members of the young republic sought to wield their autonomy, boasting to each other of the number of pigeons taken with one shot: 23, 37, 50. It would have even been difficult to know whether one had fired a rifle, for many reported that beneath the multitude of pigeons, one couldn't hear a rifle fire. Dung rained down like hail, and often thousands of people converged on a flock of birds, all with wanton aim in the sky. A pigeon storm was a crazy thing. These pigeon flights brought communities together and even kept them alive. A 1769 crop failure coincided with a pigeon flight, which kept 30,000 inhabitants fed for six weeks. 

Male passenger pigeon, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo by James St. John

Male passenger pigeon, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Photo by James St. John

There were those members of the nation who were likely not embracing the nationalistic machismo of a pigeon hunt. According to some sources, over 1/3 of the immigrants to the United States before 1920 eventually returned to their homelands, and many intended to return but never did. The young nation and its resources were perhaps seen as an opportunity, something to be taken advantage of, and the passenger pigeon fit the archetype of a resource for all, seemingly inexhaustible and incomprehensible in number. Near Philadelphia's Broad Street, where this year exulting Eagles fans climbed lampposts and street lights, their ancestors climbed atop houses, buildings, and ladders, some wielding guns (problematic for downtown), but many waving brooms and knocking pigeons out of the sky. For these 18th century “pigeoners” a days-long wave of passenger pigeons was not unlike today's cultural gathering after a Super Bowl victory. 

These pigeons found themselves in pigeon pie, demonstrably so because three pigeon toes would sit square in the middle of the pie. Pigeons were smoked, cured, and stored. They were appreciated for the sustenance they provided and left behind awestruck communities witness to billions of birds.

Market hunting complicated human's relationships with the pigeons into the 19th century. Railroad line expansions throughout the country allowed market hunters to quickly, relative to other methods, seek out pigeon flocks. These same lines, with ice-packed rail cars, allowed the fresh shipment of thousands of birds. The shipment of pigeons did something remarkable; it commodified the bird and allowed the passenger pigeon to become any number of things in a quickly industrializing economy toward the end of the century. And with that exchange of money, it was easy for a bird to become something that was not a pigeon. It should be said that most all market hunters did not strike it rich by killing the passenger pigeon, rather the hunting supplemented their income, and they worked as laborers or farmhands at other times of the year.

Where did these slain birds end up? Many were shipped to fine dining establishments throughout the country where pigeons became “ballontine of squab a la Madison,” and on the table the pigeon was difficult to uncover as it was dressed with sweetbreads, glazes, sauces, creams, pastes, and jellies, stuffed with other meats, or stuffed inside other meats. Again the pigeon had lost part of its identity, no longer three toes practically squawking at the consumer, now complicit in the onslaught against the pigeons.

Other pigeons ended up stocking the yards of trap shooters. Market shooters shipped tens of thousands of birds to trap shooting events while thousands would die en route, and most would be shot upon release. These real pigeons preceded the “clay pigeon,” which was a necessary innovation since the real pigeons were extinct. Trap shooters lost track of pigeon natural history as well, as shooting the birds one by one was a sandwich at a picnic compared to the food fight anarchy of a regular pigeon flight. Trap shooters would also deny that they had even played a role in the extinction of the passenger pigeon; they weren't the ones killing the birds on breeding grounds.

This would not be the last time the pigeons became unmoored from their ecology. At the end, in the Cincinnati Zoo the last captive passenger pigeons were named. Never before could any one or any thing focus on a single passenger pigeon named Martha, for the enormity of the flock prevented it. Only once a hunter had one in the hand could he or she reckon with the individual bird, but even then, the sight of hundreds of millions of birds must have been gripping, staying with the witness as some of Hawkins' first-hand accounts can attest. Indeed these pigeons lived on as hope for decades after extinction, hope that a flock remained in northern Canada, Argentina, or even remained genetically in street pigeons, hidden in plain sight. None would prove true.

Rounds at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Darren & Brad

Rounds at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Darren & Brad

The ecology of the passenger pigeon stands just as remarkable as the human stories surrounding the bird. Huge flocks, while not only visually stunning, would also create their own wind currents and change the earth's temperature as they blotted out the sun. While these were birds of surplus and a blessing for the early pioneers, their ecological footprint was one of catastrophe. Dung, inches thick would splatter leaves and defoliate entire forests. Excess excrement upon the forest floor would wipe out the underbrush and herb layer. It's not known what effect these roostings had upon the forest, but it's fascinating to speculate. A local farmer at Faville Grove during the time of nesting in the area hypothesized that the guano of the pigeons enriched the soil and stimulated the herb layer. He based his claim partly on the fact that after pigeon years he found great densities of ginseng which he collected. The mere presence of pigeons in an area could entirely alter its ecology, and the pigeons must have been key cogs in maintaining open woodlands and early successional shrubland habitat that favors a suite of species like brown thrashers, cuckoos, and golden-winged warblers.

The passenger pigeon's story proves a complicated lesson for conservation. While the bird was hyper-abundant in its North American home, it was, importantly, not overabundant. The birds relied on these huge flocks for survival, and hunting—both subsistence and market hunting—contributed greatly to their decline. These hunts proved to have many reasons, but as these reasons became more and more removed from the pigeon itself, the decline of this bird was magnified. Habitat loss in the form of deforestation extremely exacerbated the situation in addition to disease outbreaks. A bird of huge proportions, the passenger pigeon persists, despite its extinction, as a lesson for humankind, though those lessons turn out to be more complicated than mere axioms.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward


Header image: Earliest published illustration of the species (a male), Mark Catesby, 1731