Jan 07

Extinct Animal: Passenger Pigeon

A hundred and fifty years ago, between five and ten billion passenger pigeons flew over the skies of North America. It was not only the most numerous bird in the world at the time, but quite probably the most numerous bird that has ever existed. Seventy-five years later, the skies were empty. The passenger pigeon had been completely wiped out.

In this day and age, it may be hard for us to imagine such vast numbers of birds. Their flocks, two to three thousand million strong, took hours or even days to pass overhead. Over a hundred pairs may have nested in a single tree. They represented up to 40% of the total land bird population in the United States. It seemed impossible that the most common bird on the planet could ever become extinct, let alone in such a relatively short space of time, but several factors contributed to their decline and eventual disappearance.


Passenger Pigeon juvenile (left), male (centre) and female (right)
Picture: Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Deforestation and mindless shootings reduced their numbers somewhat, but what really caused their catastrophic decline was when pigeon meat was commercialised as a cheap food for slaves and poor people in the early nineteenth century. Hunting now took place on a truly massive scale. People used various methods to kill them, including setting fire to the trees where their nests were located, sweeping nets through low-flying flocks, and even soaking their grain in alcohol to make them easier to shoot.

An even crueler method involved blinding a pigeon by sewing its eyes shut and then releasing it again. As the pigeon fluttered around blindly, others would be disturbed and rise into the air, where they could be quickly shot. Any pigeons that were caught on the ground had their heads crushed. Special pigeon hunts were organised, whereby teams would travel to where the pigeons roosted and shoot thousands in one day. In just a single nesting site in Michigan, in 1878, around 50,000 birds were killed every day for nearly five months. Soon, there weren’t enough barrels to accommodate the vast number of dead passenger pigeons.


Taxidermied Passenger Pigeon
Photo: Cephas, taken at Laval University library

By 1896, the passenger pigeon population had reached critical levels. Only one final large flock remained, and those 250,000 were quickly wiped out by sportsmen. Conservationists tried to make the hunting of these birds illegal, but by the time the bill was finally passed a year later, it was too late. A highly gregarious bird, the passenger pigeon could only initiate courtship and reproduce when they gathered in very large numbers. The few small groups that remained did not breed successfully and the surviving numbers proved too few to re-establish the species. The last authenticated record of a wild passenger pigeon was in Ohio on the 22 March, 1900. From that year until 1912, a reward was offered for the capture of a live specimen. The reward was never claimed.


Captive Passenger Pigeon
Photo: J. G. Hubbard

A small captive population did survive, but all attempts at breeding them failed due to the same problems that had affected the wild birds. The last ever passenger pigeon died in the same state where the last wild bird had been spotted. Martha, as she was known, died in Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio, on September 1, 1914, where a memorial statue to her still stands to this day.

The story of the passenger pigeon shows that no animal species is truly safe from mankind. If the most numerous bird in the world, with a population greater than all the humans alive on the planet in 2014, could become extinct within a hundred years, then what does that mean for everything else…?

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