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Thursday, February 05, 2004

On the Passenger Pigeon

For some reason the fate of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius, sometimes called the Wood Pigeon or Wild Pigeon) has always fascinated me. I suppose its because they were formerly so great in number throughout North America and now are extinct with the last one dying in a Cincinnati zoo in September of 1914. The Chicago Field Museum has a display with several stuffed specimens and a short description of their demise that my daughter and I viewed last fall. She is a budding bird watcher and was amazed when I told her the sketchy details as I remembered them.

I recently ran across a wonderful history of the Passenger Pigeon in the book Birds of America, originally published in 1917 (its proximity to the extinction is why I assume it has such a lengthy article on the Passenger Pigeon written by Edward Howe Forbush originally published in Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds). The copy I have was published in 1936 and given as a Christmas gift to my grandfather from my mother in 1949. The 106 full color plates were produced by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927) one of the most respected American artists of ornithological works. My grandfather was a bird lover as well and I'm sure he enjoyed the volume. For many years the book sat on bookshelf at my parents house and I recall occasionally leafing through it and particularly reading about another endangered bird, the California Condor.

The article traces the history of human contact with the PP from its first mention by Champlain in July 1605 on the coast of Maine to its gradual extinction at the end of the 19th century. He quotes from accounts by Alexander Wilson in 1806 in Kentucky and Audubon himself in 1813 in Ohio of flocks 240 miles long a mile wide with an estimated 2,230,000,000 birds and one that was a mile wide and took over 3 hours to pass with an estimated 1,115,000,000 birds. He recounts the habit of townspeople gathering by the river during these migrations and shooting into the flocks (the birds often descended as they passed over the river) resulting in so many birds being killed that people ate nothing but pigeon for a week. The flocks had to migrate often to find enough food to eat and when not in the air could be found 50 to a branch and causing smaller and weaker trees to topple killing hundreds of birds in the process.

Interestingly, he notes that Indians hunted the birds in great numbers and even followed the migrations analogous to following the herds of Buffalo although never appreciably diminished their numbers. The Indians would cure large amounts of pigeon meat and it was reported in 1709 that every Indian village had supplies of pigeon's oil or fat used like butter produced from the squabs (young PP that are stuffed with food by their parents shortly before being kicked out of the nest producing an incredibly fat bird and an easy target). This was interesting to me since it relates to Guns, Germs, and Steel. In that book the author discusses reasons why some societies may have chosen to stick to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle rather than switch to farming even after they were exposed to it. An abundant natural resource like the PP would be one good reason not to switch, especially when the resource migrates and you need to follow it. Of course, this also points out that a group might follow a mixed strategy and farm for part of the year while migrating as well.

Once white men came on the scene the birds were hunted mercilessly and although guns helped, netting was the primary weapon and could be used to catch hundreds at a time. The largest nets could catch 200 to 250 dozen at one time. Around 1860 by which time the birds were rare on the east coast, there were between 400 and 1000 professional netters who followed the migrations supplying eastern cities. "The New York market alone would take 100 barrels a day without a break in price. Chicago, St. Louis, Boston and all the great and little cities of the north and east joined in the demand. Need we wonder why the pigeons have vanished?" The last great slaughter occurred in the 1870s when a flock migrated from Missouri to Michigan to New York pursued and harrassed at each location. After around 1881 no great nesting sites were discovered and the birds appear to have split up into smaller flocks with small sitings in Illinois in 1895 and Michigan and Ohio in 1900. Although netting the birds stopped in the 1880s because it was no longer profitable, the smaller flocks apparently couldn't reproduce sufficiently.

The author hints at several factors that contributed to the demise of the PP:

1. They had a habit of communal feeding and so if parents were killed, the young were cared for by others in the flock. Once the big flocks were broken up, the young would die if their parents did. There may also be other factors at work where the birds mating habits were tied to large flocks in terms of competing for nesting sites and finding mates etc.
2. The PP was not wary of humans
3. They laid few eggs (1 to 2)
4. Their squabs were easy prey, easily netted, and favored by consumers and so a large number of young were killed each year
5. Habitat destruction, the birds favored the beech and pine forests that were cleared for farming
6. Forced migration north which may have killed more birds than usual in spring storms
7. No attempts to protect them since their formerly huge numbers worked against them when attempting to pass legislation

In summary the author notes drly "We did our best to exterminate both old and young, and we succeeded. The explanation is so simple that all talk of 'mystery' seems sadly out of place."

Although too long to relate here he ends his piece with the very detailed account of Chief Pokagon, the last Pottawottomi chief who encountered the birds in May of 1850 in Michigan and witnessed their nesting and habits of reproduction.


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