Alexander Wilson wrote that “while visiting friends in New England, sitting in the kitchen suddenly the sky became dark, there was no light in the room, and a rumbling noise grew louder, I was certain it was a tornado”. When his friends saw how frightened he was, they exclaimed, “Oh, it’s only the pigeons flying overhead”.
With fossil records dating back to 100,000 years before present and once believed to be the most abundant land bird in North America, with a population of 3-5 billion, how does the passenger pigeon become extinct within 40 years of decline?
Passenger pigeons were once so abundant, several areas in Ontario are named after them, including Pigeon River Provincial Park. However, due to their abundance, these pigeons were never studied in the wild. Pieces of their history have been compiled through written articles and firsthand accounts.
“They were annually looked for in April. The first who observed them circulated the news, ‘The pigeons are flying,’ and early in the morning a regular fusillade would be heard all along the edges of the Mountain. These annual migrations seemed to attain their maximum in 1854, ‘the year of the cholera.’ During that season from April until June flocks passed to the west in every hour. Vast numbers were killed, until, fortunately for the birds, a rumour got abroad that eating too many pigeons caused the cholera. After that year the flocks rapidly decreased in number until 1885, when the annual migrations have entirely ceased.” Thomas McIwraith
Passenger pigeons migrated in groups estimated up to 2 billion birds and would darken the skies up to three days. With such large migrations, there was a need for large nesting areas. Forest destruction is said to be one of the causes of the demise of this species. However, human greed has been the main theory for the decrease in population. Market hunters were said to have kills in the thousands and millions. Soon, netters started capturing this species to use for live shooting competitions. With the advancement of technology, such as the telegraph and the development of the railway, access to rookeries increased. With such a large population, who would ever think humans could put a dent in this abundant bird?
Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon died in a zoo, September 1, 1914. This year marks the 100th year since passenger pigeons have become extinct.
Let’s take the opportunity to learn from Martha and the nature that surrounds us. There are many species today with declining populations but there also many that are increasing! Everyone can take part in helping. Next time you see a leopard frog, a cerulean warbler or a snapping turtle, record your observation! There are many apps and internet sites you can use. Also, look for volunteer opportunities, such as a whippoorwill survey with Bird Studies Canada. We can work together and take Martha’s story and turn it into one of hope.
For more information on the Passenger Pigeon check out the Passenger Pigeon Project and the documentary From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction