Posted on 28 April 2014.
The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction
The passenger pigeon disappeared in a geologic heartbeat. Because of us.
Imagine that tomorrow morning you woke up and discovered that the familiar rock pigeon—scientifically known as Columba livia, popularly known as the rat with wings—had disappeared.
It was gone not simply from your window ledge but from Piazza San Marco, Trafalgar Square, the Gateway of India arch, and every park, sidewalk, telephone wire, and rooftop in between.
Would you grieve for the loss of a familiar creature, or rip out the spikes on your air-conditioner and celebrate? Perhaps your reaction would depend on the cause of the extinction. If the birds had been carried off in a mass avian rapture, or a pigeon-specific flu, you might let them pass without guilt, but if they had been hunted to death by humans you might feel honor-bound to bring them back to life.
In “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” Joel Greenberg’s studies a bird that really did vanish after near-ubiquity.
The passenger pigeon—sometimes called “the blue pigeon” for its color though the blue was blended with gray, red, copper, and brown– should not be confused with its distant cousin, the message-bearing carrier pigeon, which is really just a domesticated rock pigeon in military dress.
Unlike the rock pigeon– domesticated six thousand years ago, now feral, and brought to these shores by Europeans in the early seventeenth century– the passenger pigeon was native to North America, where it roved over a billion acres of the continent searching for bumper crops of tree nuts.
It was here, like the American bison, when Europeans arrived, and it was here when the peoples we consider indigenous migrated across their land bridge thousands of years before that. It evolved on the unspoiled continent and was allied with the big trees that once covered much of the Northeast and the Midwest.
Most Numerous of Birds
The passenger pigeon was the most numerous bird species in North America, and possibly the world, dominating the eastern half of the continent in numbers that stagger the imagination.
In 1813, John James Audubon saw a flock– if that is what you call an agglomeration of birds moving at sixty miles an hour and obliterating the noonday sun– that was merely the advance guard of a multitude that took three days to pass.
Alexander Wilson, the other great bird observer of the time, reckoned that the flock he saw contained 2,230,272,000 individuals.
To get your head around that number and just how many passenger pigeons that would mean, consider that there are only about two hundred and sixty million rock pigeons in the world today. You would have to imagine more than eight times the total world population of rock pigeons, all flying at the same time in one connected mass.
No wonder witnesses frequently described the birds in quasi-Biblical, if not apocalyptic, language. A flight over Columbus, Ohio, in 1855 elicited the following eye-witness account:
“As the watchers stared, the hum increased to a mighty throbbing. Now everyone was out of the houses and stores, looking apprehensively at the growing cloud, which was blotting out the rays of the sun.
Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted.
A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped on their knees and prayed.”
On the ground, the birds were equally prodigious. A joint at the corners of the lower bill enabled their mouths to more than double in size. Their crops could hold “up to a quarter of a pint of foodstuffs,” and they could vomit at will if they saw a food that they liked better.
Thoreau, a keen watcher of the birds, marveled that they could swallow acorns whole. A Detroit newspaper in the late nineteenth century described the squabs as having “the digestive capacity of half a dozen 14-year-old boys.”
In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land.
“They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,” one old-timer recalled, “then they would move to adjoining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old roost and destroy the remainder of the timber.” Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees.
One hunter recalled a nighttime visit to a swamp in Ohio in 1845, when he was sixteen; he mistook for haystacks what were in fact alder and willow trees, bowed to the ground under gigantic pyramids
of birds many bodies deep.
As late as 1871, a single nesting ground in Sparta, Wisconsin, covered eight hundred and fifty square miles, hosting more than a hundred million birds.
But the profusion was misleading.
The End of the Line
Twenty-nine years later, a boy in Ohio shot a passenger pigeon out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun, killing what was identified as the last wild member of the species.
A small captive population remained at the Cincinnati Zoo, including a pair patriotically named George and Martha, but there would be no new feathered nation. By 1910, Martha was the sole survivor.
Martha spent four years as a melancholy zoo attraction. Visitors tossed sand to get her to move. Officials offered a thousand-dollar reward for a mate, but on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon in the world died.
Newspapers described how Martha was frozen in a three-hundred-pound block of ice and sent by train from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C. There she was skinned, stuffed, and put on display at the Smithsonian for a nation guiltily waking up to its role in the destruction of the bird and its habitat.
How could a bird could go from a population of billions to zero in less than fifty years?
The short answer is that it tasted good.
The bird was easy to kill and so abundant that it often seemed, in the days before refrigeration, like the quail that fell on the Israelites in Exodus. In 1781, after a crop failure, a flock of pigeons saved a large swath of New Hampshire from starvation. Despite the occasional apocalyptic shiver, most Americans looked up and decided that it was cloudy with a chance of meatballs.
The birds were such tempting targets that, in the early eighteenth century, cities had to ban hunting in town, because, in the words of one ordinance, from 1727, “everyone takes the liberty of shooting thoughtlessly from his windows, the threshold of his door, the middle of the streets.”
You did not even need a gun: you could poke them from their nests with poles or beat them out of the air with clubs– the weapon of choice Mark Twain recalled from his boyhood, in Hannibal, Missouri. Squabs were fattened on “pigeon milk”– the sloughed-off lining of the birds’ crop that parents regurgitated for their young– and got so plump, Greenberg reports, that they would fall to earth with a “splat.”
The birds even killed themselves. Greenberg conjures up a vision of pigeons crammed into their huge roosts, and then asks the reader to “imagine the destruction that would ensue when tree limbs, or at times entire trees, snapped and plummeted to the ground, crushing hundreds if not thousands of birds. When flocks descended to drink, at times the birds that landed first would drown under the weight of newcomers.”
No wonder Martha lived so long in her lonely cage.
For both Native Americans and European settlers, the appearance of passenger pigeons or the discovery of one of their giant roosting grounds became a festive occasion where every member of the family had a role: shooting the birds, knocking squabs out of nests, chasing the unfledged runaways, and collecting the dead for pickling, salting, baking, or boiling.
Boys stuck long hickory poles into the ground, pulled on ropes tied to the tips of the poles, and knocked birds down simply by making the poles quiver. Nets were stretched between trees. A roosting ground in Tennessee was set on fire and “scorched corpses were then collected the next day for personal use or sale” from two-foot-high piles of the dead.
More elaborate methods were used, of course—like luring the birds into nets with a live pigeon, which is the origin of the term “stool pigeon.” A demand for stool pigeons opened up a trade in live birds, and so did the later development of “trap shooting,” in which live birds were mechanically launched into the air for sportsmen.
So many birds died in transport to the shoots that huge numbers were needed. The “clay pigeon” was devised by passenger-pigeon hunters to replicate the experience after the actual birds grew scarce.
As long as America was rural and untraversed by railroads, the killing did not seem to do much more than dent the vast pigeon population. After the Civil War, however, things began to change rapidly.
You could find out by telegraph where pigeons were nesting, get there quickly by train, and sell what you killed to a city hundreds of miles away. Soon market hunters began operating on an enormous scale, cramming tens of thousands of birds into boxcars—especially after Gustavus Swift introduced the refrigerator car, in 1878.
This meant that rural migrants to growing cities could still get wild game, and the well-heeled could eat Ballotine of Squab à la Madison, served by a new class of restaurant, like Delmonico’s, in New York, where fine dining was becoming a feature of urban life. All this coincided with an explosion in logging, which began destroying the habitat of pigeons just as hunters were destroying the pigeons themselves.
We did hunt the passenger pigeon to death, even if we didn’t quite understand at the time what we were doing.
We also might have saved it, at least in token form, if only our technological genius and our conservation consciousness– two things that set us apart from other animals– had come together sooner.
Human beings live in their historical and cultural contexts as much as passenger pigeons lived in fields, trees, and sky; it is important to remember, for example, that rural people hunted for food in the days before factory farming and supermarkets. The chicken industry in this country alone kills more than seven billion birds a year– far more than the total number of passenger pigeons at their peak.
Nobody in the nineteenth century had figured out how to make the slaughter of the birds sustainable, but it is worth wondering what we would think of the passenger pigeon, and ourselves, if they had.
Thoreau, in a mysteriously beautiful passage in his 1862 essay “Walking,” likens the diminishing numbers of passenger pigeons in New England to the dwindling number of thoughts in a man’s head, “for the grove in our minds is laid waste.”
Thinking of the birds as missing thoughts is a good way to honor them. Martha and her billions were undone by the complicated, pitiless tangle of our modern industrialized world, but Thoreau’s nineteenth-century protest—“Simplify, simplify”—will not help us in the twenty-first.
Indeed, when it comes to our relationship to nature, the wish for simplicity may be the most destructive thing in the world.
~Via Joel Greenberg/Jon Rosen/Anthony Kendall/Vimeo
* * * * * * * * *
Our best wishes and heartfelt appreciation goes out to the
Yurok Tribe for their efforts in restoring the Condor
…Please share this with others
and follow us on Twitter and Facebook