All thinking people now realize that man alone was responsible for the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon so that further discussion of this phase of the subject is unnecessary. – A.W. Schorger
Male Passenger Pigeon by Tim Hough (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
No one born in the twentieth century, and alive today, has ever seen a Passenger Pigeon in the wild, or in captivity, Male_Passenger_Pigeonr that matter. While it’s true that this species, extinct since around the beginning of the twentieth century, was the most numerous of all animals in North America for thousands of years and until after the Civil War, most people and even naturalists of the time, were absolutely dumbfounded and in disbelief by their seemingly sudden extinction. How is it that the Passenger Pigeon, representing about 40% of all the living mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds of North America and estimated to have a population of about five billion, could disappear in the wild within a few short decades? They existed in such abundance that everyone, even ornithologists of the time, seriously doubted the possibility of their permanent disappearance.
The extinction of the Dodo, in the late 17th century, stirred up controversy within the scientific community and alerted the general public that human behavior caused their demise. However, the numbers of these flightless birds were limited as they only occupied the relatively small island of Mauritius located in the Indian Ocean east of the larger island of Madagascar. The Dutch became the first human settlers on the island and used it first as a stopover for their spice-trade ships and later as a penal colony. Dodos, which were larger than our Wild Turkeys, weighed 40-50 pounds and provided the human population with a protein source when little else was commonly available. (Sailors were tired of fish!) By 1861, the last Dodo bird was killed. While the demise of the Dodo has been well documented, no complete specimens were preserved. Only fragments of bones and sketches remain. It only took about one century for the Dodo population to crash from their highest numbers to none at all.
Certain similarities parallel the story of North America’s Passenger Pigeon. However, important distinctions should be noted and this article will introduce the readers to some of them. It is also important to recognize that the extinction of this American species is a story filled with horrific methods of killing, cruelty beyond belief in many cases, wanton and controlled violence, greed, and a public that did not believe the species could not survive the genocide committed against it. By the time the public, and the scientific community at large, realized that the birds faced extinction – it was already too late to save the species. However, the telling of the story of the Passenger Pigeon can serve as a reminder that humans are directly or indirectly responsible for most, if not all, modern extinctions.
Since prehistoric times, North America had been home to the species, particularly eastern North America. While their range was centered in their historic nesting territories (New England, west across the southern Great Lakes, south through the Mississippi River and east along the Mason-Dixon line to the Atlantic Ocean). Their range became expanded when their huge flocks needed to expand in search of forage and larger nesting grounds for such large numbers within flocks. Due to human incursions and permanent changes in their traditional territories, their expanded range included the territory from eastern Canada west to southern Hudson Bay, across the southern provinces to the Canadian Rockies, and south through the great mid-western prairies to the Gulf Coast of Texas. All the land mass within those boundaries, with the exception of southern Florida, experienced the arrival of huge numbers of Passenger Pigeons.
The main fact about Passenger Pigeons that the general public would be familiar with (other than perhaps their extinction) is the enormity of flocks. There is no doubt about the size of the flocks, as they have been documented by hundreds, if not thousands, of: reliable reports from ornithologists; professional writers and their publications; pigeon hunters and trappers; farmers; foresters; various associations, societies and clubs; numerous citizens who kept records of the birds in journals and diaries for a variety of reasons; letters to editors, editorials, and articles in newspapers of the day. Their numbers boggled the minds of those who experienced such sights. Those that only heard about the huge flock sizes seriously doubted the veracity of what they heard. Many observers, including Audubon himself, doubted the figures until he experienced them himself.
Small flocks and independent family groups always existed outside the larger flocks. Flocks of hundreds and thousands were considered small flocks. When hundreds of thousands of pigeons flocked together, they were considered large flocks. Larger flocks yet, which numbered into the millions, were commonly observed. Really large flocks contained up to 500 million birds!
The largest flocks of Passenger Pigeons were those that drew the most attention, of course. They were impossible to miss (or hear) and stirred awe, wonder, amazement, and even fear among those who experienced such a natural phenomenon. Audubon and other leading naturalists and ornithologists documented their observations regularly. It is hard for us currently to imagine the sights, sounds, and emotions of those who experienced flocks of medium and larger sizes.
For example, from the literature on record, the following report is given from an early spring morning in Columbus, Ohio, in 1855: “The people of that city were going about their usual routines when they first noticed “a low-pitched hum” that slowly engulfed them. It grew louder, as horses and dogs began fidgeting. Then just within the limits of vision, wispy clouds appeared on the southern horizon: “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 the stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped to their knees and prayed…Suddenly a great cry arouse from the south end of High Street. ‘It’s the passenger pigeons! It’s the pigeons!...And then the dark cloud was over the city…Day was turned to dusk. The thunder of wings made shouting necessary for human communication.” When the flock had finally passed almost two hours later, the town looked ghostly in the now-bright sunlight that illuminated a world plated with pigeon ejecta. Much larger flocks would take days to pass and their presence had much greater effects and results.
Passenger pigeon shoot by Smith Bennett [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So many independent and reliable accounts and reports documenting flock size have survived, coupled with hundreds of written and oral accounts from eyewitnesses within the overall range, that there is no doubt to their authenticity or reliability. The largest documented flocks, from the time of the first European settlers to the post-Civil War period, typically described their size as no less than a mile wide and up to 300 miles long. They were low-flying flocks, occupying the space between the tree tops up to about 300 feet above ground. The flock formation was exceptionally tight, with the birds having only enough space between them to flap their wings. They were densely packed flocks to be sure. They were also densely packed in layers as well. Many reports described the flocks densely layered with up to two dozen birds stacked up one above the next. It was believed that a single rifle shot may have killed 4 or 5 five at once but their bodies didn’t fall out of the sky for up to half a mile away as their flightless bodies were kept in air by the density of the flocks!
Many reports agree that while such large flocks passed overhead, their density and overall size literally blocked out the bright sun, many have described that in the period of time that it took for a flock to pass over single location, it was like twilight or evening for the duration. The birds only flew in the daylight hours but the largest flocks could take up to three days to pass! These larger flocks would be a combination of several smaller flocks that would gather in such large number to forage where the foods were abundant enough for all the birds to become as fat as possible. They expanded their range as foraging demanded and they were very adaptable birds, much like our modern Mourning Doves, which today occupy the entirety of the continent and utilize many various types of habitat.
Passenger pigeon shooting in Iowa
By Frank Leslie's Illustrated News (vol. XXV, no. 625, p. 8)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Relationships with Native Americans
While the earliest inhabitants of North America were the indigenous peoples who had been here for thousands of years, we know from the oral histories of their preceding generations, and archeological records, that these birds were an integral part of their lives. Pre-reservation era records have documented how finely intertwined the social and religious lives of the people were with these birds, going back to pre-historic times. Naturally, they utilized every part of the bird and celebrated its importance to their survival in many legends, rituals, and ceremonies. The Iroquois, Seneca and the Cherokee, among many other nations, created and performed specific pigeon dances and songs. The Iroquois pigeon dance was performed at various times of the year but especially as the opening dance of the annual Maple Festival. It featured two leaders, both men and women, shaking horn rattles while two files of dancers stomp-stamped in a large circle. As part of their Green Corn Festival, the Cherokee performed a dance that emulated the predator-prey relationship between the pigeon and the pigeon hawk (a merlin or related accipiter). Just as the predator would dart into flocks to whisk away it victim, a dancer pretending to be the raptor would rush the line of his comrades and pick one off. Another Cherokee dance was a pantomime depicting the hunting of pigeons at a roost. The natives of North America helped the earliest European explorers and settlers come to grips with their new environment and the pigeons quickly became relied upon in their daily lives. Their primary use was as a food source, but their feathers and oil from their fat also became highly prized.
An early English explorer and naturalist who documented the local avifauna of the Salisbury, North Carolina region recorded 120 species of birds from that area. He engaged local natives to guide him into unknown territory where he discovered new species of blackbirds, buntings, thrushes, and swallows. He was particularly interested in the pigeons, which held special significance to the Cherokee. He writes: “(I) find several Indian Towns, of not above 17 Houses, that have more than 100 Gallons of Pigeon Oil, or Fat; they use it with Pulse, or Bread, as we do Butter, and making the Ground as white as a Sheet with their Dung. The Indians take a Light, and go among them in the Night, and bring away thousands, killing them with long Poles, as they roost in the Trees. At this time of the Year, the Flocks, as they pass by, in great measure, obstruct the Light of the day.”
Among most tribes, there was general agreement that only squabs (fledglings) would be hunted, sparing the breeding age adults so as not to upset the balance of nature and thereby insure their abundance in the future. The squabs were harvested from nests just a day or two before they could fly. At this stage of their lives, they were at their most tender and had hefty weight due to the highly nutritious pigeon milk they were nourished on in the nest. They were eaten while fresh: boiling, or by broiling over fire or stewed was most common, and the major haul of squabs were either rendered to obtain oil for butter or preserved for future use by smoking and drying.
Willie Gordon, a trapper and noted bear hunter, was a descendent of Cornplanter, the last of the great Seneca War Chiefs of the Allegheny Band. Interviewed by several ethnologists, they agreed that his recollections were accurate and remembered with great clarity and detail. He described the pigeons as arriving in northern Pennsylvania in late March and early April in flocks whose beating “wings sounded as thunder. They came as a plague of locusts and devoured every sprouting plant. If I ever hear that there is to be a pigeon hunt, I will try to go there. It is the best fun you ever saw. When we get back, people will not know us – we will be fat from eating squabs and drinking pigeon oil.” He described the ordeal of walking overland, about 200 miles, to where a large flock was roosting and after the hunt was over, slogging home carrying ash-splint baskets hanging from sinew straps across his back and shoulders and packed full with dressed squabs.
Reports by Early Explorers & Colonial Settlers
Some of the earliest accounts of Passenger Pigeon flocks came from the European explorers who first documented their expeditions and discoveries, such as Jacques Cartier, who was searching for treasure and a northwest passage to Asia. He failed in both efforts but is generally recognized as the first European to discover and navigate the St. Lawrence River in Canada. However, and more importantly for this article, he was the first European to record the existence of the Passenger Pigeon, in 1534. Ralph Hamor published a “true discourse” on Virginia in 1615 that tells of “wilde Pigeons (in winter beyond number or imagination, my selfe have seene three or four hours together flocks in the aire, so thicke that even they have shadowed the skie from us).” A Dutch chronicler of early New York wrote that, in 1620, Passenger Pigeons were the most common bird on Manhattan Island and, when massed in the air, “shut out the sunshine.” The Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather wrote about the Passenger Pigeons he observed in the Salem area of Massachusetts. His observations were mostly correct but some of his suppositions were not supported by science. He happened to be the first American member of the Royal Society of London. He sent two “scientific papers” to the organization, which they published with the exception of his speculation that the birds actually migrated “to some undiscovered Satellite, accompanying the Earth at a near distance” and his theory of why they built flimsy nests – which had to do with the nests being built by the birds with the intention of allowing the eggs to cool off, otherwise they would burn up from high internal heat.
Another Englishman, John Josselyn, visiting New England in 1638, wrote: “I have seen a flight of Pidgeons in the spring and at Michalmas when they return back to the Southward for four or five miles, that to my thinking had neither beginning nor ending, length, or breadth, and so thick I could see no sun.” In 1659, the Reverend Andrew Bernaby was in Newport, Rhode Island, when he documented what he saw; “I observed prodigious flights of wild pigeons; they directed their course southward, and the hemisphere was never entirely free from them. They are birds of passage, of beautiful plumage, and are excellent eating. The accounts given of their numbers are almost incredible.”
Alexander Wilson Reports
Alexander Wilson, called the father of American ornithology, observed a relatively small-sized flock of pigeons in February of 1810 on the Ohio River between Indiana and Kentucky. He wrote, “I often rested on my oars to contemplate their aerial maneuvers. A column, eight or ten miles in length, would appear…the leaders of this great body would sometimes gradually vary their course, until it formed a large bend, of more than a mile in diameter, those behind tracing the exact route of their predecessors. This would continue sometimes long after both extremities were beyond the reach of sight; so that the whole, with its glittery undulations, marked a space on the face of the heavens resembling the winding of a vast and majestic river.” Fellow ornithologists did not challenge Wilson’s estimations of the numbers of birds composing a flock, even when the number seemed almost unbelievable. He calculated the largest flock he observed contained 2,230,272,000 birds. It took three days for the flock to pass overhead and the sun was block out entirely the whole time!
On another occasion, also on the Ohio River, he paddled to shore to buy some milk from a farmer. As he stood inside the farmer’s cabin chatting, an amazing thing happened: “I was suddenly struck with astonishment at a loud rushing roar, succeeded by instant darkness, which, on the first moment, I took for a tornado, about to overwhelm the house and everything around in destruction.” However, the farmer remained cool and calmly explained, “It’s only the Pigeons.”
John James Audubon Reports
Audubon, perhaps whose name we associate with birds more so than any other early American naturalist, wrote in 1813 while traveling through the Kentucky countryside, “Pigeons in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before…I traveled on, and still met more the further I proceeded. The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of the noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.” The volume of birds coursing southwest never abated over the hours it took him to reach Louisville by early evening. Nor did they for three days running.
62 Passenger Pigeon
John James Audubon
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Much has been written of the enormously loud sound the large flocks make when they land to roost for the night or arrive at feeding grounds early in the morning. Pigeon hunters, lying in wait nearby, have described the deafening sound like that “of hundreds of trains all rushing into the same station.” Others have said that humans only a few feet apart would have to yell at each other at the top of their lungs in order to communicate, if at all. Still others reported the sound as so loud they had to cover their ears and run far away. Some have likened their sound to that of being inside a tornado. Needless to say, written accounts of flock size and sounds will have to suffice.
Prehistoric Passenger Pigeons
Archaeologists have identified Passenger Pigeon bones at hundreds of prehistoric sites throughout eastern North America, from Canada to northern Florida. They were the most commonly consumed birds, along with Wild Turkeys, at nearly every site discovered. It is estimated that by 900 to 1000 A.D. the population of this species peaked. Some estimate more than half of all bones found in archaeological sites were pigeon bones. It is hard to imagine how many billions of birds existed back then!
When we think of early Americans moving west across the country, we almost simultaneously think of the native buffalo herds that numbered in the millions. They were brought to the edge of extinction within a relatively few short years. They were hunted into near extinction not so much as a food source for white settlers in their quest of Andrew Jackson’s Manifest Destiny, but to cause the total elimination (by starvation) of the Native Americans who depended upon them as their major food source and who had called this land their home for many hundreds of years prior to the westward expansion.
Pioneers & Pigeons
The Passenger Pigeon was a staple of the pioneer diet and actually enabled the earliest westward travelers to avoid starvation when other foods we not abundant or even available. Due to the low-flying flocks and the incredible density of the flocks, a single unaimed gunshot would invariably bring down at least a single bird. A single shotgun blast would easily bring down half a dozen birds without the need to even aim. Passenger Pigeons help make possible the western expansion much quicker than otherwise would have been. They helped the pioneers get at least as far as the western plains, where game and other foodstuffs became easier to obtain, as they got closer to the Rockies.
Passenger Pigeon Diets
The diet of the Passenger Pigeon is similar to that of the other members of the dove family. Usually, when range maps indicate that a given species can only be found, either seasonally or as a resident, in a very restricted and relatively small range – this is indicative that they probably have more limited and specialized diets. Pigeons are wide ranging in their foraging endeavors and like many other birds that are very widespread on the range maps, it is a clue that their diets are more inclusive than exclusive. This enables the species to adapt to different foods in different types of habitat. While they seemingly preferred moist, low-lying hardwood forests, these pigeons have been recorded massing into great flocks, flying to bountiful foraging grounds, and adapting to varied habitats as a means of necessity.
Their favorite foods were mast. It was thought to be the major, or solitary food, during the nesting season. Mast is the fruit (nuts) of hardwood trees and their favorites were chestnut, oak (acorns) and beech. When settlers would clear pine forests to use the wood in construction, these nut-bearing hardwoods often appeared soon thereafter to colonize the open ground. Eventually, most of these lands came under cultivation, forcing the birds to search further, expanding their range, in the search for favorite foods – chestnuts in particular during the nesting season. Other hardwood fruits and nuts; such as aspen, maple, elm and others would be taken if and when available. Nevertheless, the flocks had their preferred foraging destinations and traveled up to 200+ miles daily to feed on those grounds. American Chestnuts were the most numerous trees of the eastern/mid-western areas of North America until disease wiped out 99% of these trees. These nut-bearing trees were found from the southeastern hardwood swamps and wetlands to the Canadian hardwood forests, mostly east of the Mississippi River. When fully ripened, their hard but thin shells would split open and the pigeons had access to the nutmeats. Their favorite nuts, when ripe, had a slightly sweet and taste, relatively soft texture, and were loaded with nutrients, protein and fat (as most tree nuts are).
Over twenty species of oak trees produced acorns that the birds preferred over most other nuts. Chief among them were Red, White, Black and Hill’s Oaks. However, the birds fed on all acorn species to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps they preferred those oaks with the sweetest acorns. The sweetness of any oak acorn is determined by several factors; the amount of carbohydrates in the roots of the trees, the weather (a late frost could damage flowers and delay or reduce the production and maturation of the nuts) and the tannin content of any particular species of oak. Acorns would usually be swallowed whole. “It is a wonder how pigeons can swallow acorns whole,” wrote a perplexed Henry David Thoreau in his diary entry of September 13, 1859, “but they do.”
Variety of Diet
When seasonally foraging on ripe nuts, their diet may be restricted for the time it takes for them to fully strip the site. Most of the year, vast flocks often relied on a variety of other foods over varying periods of the year. They would eat most wild fruits – with preferences for a wide variety of berries and other wild fruits. Berries, it seems, were abundantly available throughout the pigeons normal range. In their seasons, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries seemed to be preferred, although most other varieties of berries were taken at appropriate times of the year. Farmers that cultivated fields of seed and grain crops were hard hit when flocks of pigeons discovered them. Farmers considered them among the worst of the crop pests. A medium size flock could descend into a ripening field with acres of corn, wheat, peas, or buckwheat and strip those tracts of grains completely. Farm households would try to fight off the birds with guns, arrows, slingshots, poles, clubs, clanging bells, pots and pans, and virtually anything else that could be used to kill the birds, while most of the birds continued feeding, seemingly undisturbed. Thousands of birds would routinely be killed in a matter of a couple of hours. Orchards of apple, pear and other domesticated fruits were willingly foraged on, too. Out of what must have been sheer frustration, some farmers took to using strychnine, gopher poisons and other poisons and chemical agents to destroy the birds, mostly to no avail. Because pigeon was a staple in the diet of many of those farmers and their neighbors, poisoning was not a widespread method of controlling or killing the birds as folks who ate those birds became sickened themselves by doing so. A.W. Shorger, who did early research on Passenger Pigeons in Ontario, Canada, listed about 40 genera of wild plants known to have been eaten by the species. Native Americans reported the birds would eat almost any plant in its sprout stage. They consumed a wide variety of insects, virtually any insect they could catch and swallow. They especially preyed upon earthworms, snails, beetles, weevils, locusts and grasshoppers, and other slow-moving insects found primarily on ground.
Trapper Albert Cooper with blind decoys used to
capture wild Passenger Pigeon, 1870
Paxson, Henry D. (1917). "The last of the Wild Pigeon in Bucks County".
Collection of papers read before the Bucks county historical society 4: 367-382.
Pigeon Meat on the Market
With the virtually unimaginable numbers of Passenger Pigeons spread across the eastern two thirds of the continent, they not only fed pioneers and settlers, but urban populations, too, as cities grew larger. The market for these birds was always saturated, with the result that prices were extremely low. Pigeon meat was the cheapest protein available and everyone could afford it, no matter how poor. Pigeon hunters, trappers and harvesters would sell their hard-earned product for as little as three birds for a single cent. On the other end of the scale, Delmonico’s, perhaps the most popular of all upscale restaurants (and still in operation today) in Manhattan, New York would buy the fanciest, largest, most prime pigeons for about today’s equivalent of 30 cents each. Typically, in such restaurants, a pigeon dinner would include anywhere from one to three pigeons surrounded by a bed of wild rice and freshly unearthed truffles. Caviar was a side dish and champagne would accompany the meal. Such large abundances of pigeon were easily available and so cheap that birds that were not extremely fresh were used as dog and pig food. Even with that, more pigeons existed than could be consumed in any manner, so huge piles of pigeon were thrown out to rot. With the advent of railroads and refrigeration, once the population numbers had started becoming rapidly diminished, these birds could be kept fresh longer, which the market demanded.
Use of Pigeon Feathers
The feathers of Passenger Pigeons were considered worthy of stuffing pillows and beds. Whereas goose down and feathers were nowhere near as abundant (and much more costly if store-bought), there seemed to be an endless supply of pigeon feathers. Bedding costs became very affordable and soon feathers replaced other materials, such as horse hair and other types of fibers, to the point that nearly everyone could afford a “luxury” pillow. Those in rural areas made their own bedding supplies from the pigeons they were able to kill. The Tyler family of Piermont, New Hampshire, watched with glee as a small flock of pigeons descended on their property. In a killing spree, the family collected over four hundred dozen (that’s almost 5000 birds!) and invited their neighbors over for a “picking bee”. The helpers were able to keep the meat of all the birds they stripped, and the Tylers’s were left with enough feathers to make four good beds, enough for the whole family.
Generally, feathers were collected from birds that were killed primarily for the meat, but occasionally and when the need arose, the feathers became the primary product of the birds and their meaty bodies were used as animal foods or simply discarded. The supply of Passenger Pigeons seemed to most to be an inexhaustible natural resource that no one could ever envision not lasting forever, no matter how many were killed.
“Picking bees” became a somewhat common event, particularly in rural areas where folks made much of what they owned and used. Urban people would simply buy their bedding from stores. Most of the “picking bees” were composed of women and children. In Coudersport, Pennsylvania, after a large nesting began, mother pluckers were hired at the rate of five cents for every dozen pigeons they processed. The children, naturally, earned less money than the adult women. However, these were social events more than jobs. They provided the feathers needed to make bedding supplies and gave rural folks a reason to get together; to gossip, play and, sometimes, share in a large group meal.
With the introduction of pigeon feathers as pillow and bed stuffing, their popularity soared. Many considered it a sign of luxury to own such items. An acceptable wedding dowry had to include such items. Common folklore had people believing that sleeping with such articles provided eternal life. Critically ill and elderly folks kept this myth alive, at least, until they died!
In 1936, long after extinction, Alvin McKnight of Augusta, Wisconsin, related how he and his wife continued using their pigeon bedding that they received in 1877, which they believed provided for their good health and kept death away. They were both in excellent health despite his age of 84 and hers of 77. However, when their health later began to decline, the pigeon feathers were not able to prevent their deaths. As time advanced, along with the deaths of those who used these feathers for that reason, the widespread myth of immortality faded.
Medicinal Uses of Pigeons
During early and Colonial times, it was thought that these birds possessed medicinal properties. Dr. John Brickell, in 1737 North Carolina, wrote that the pigeon’s blood was effective in the treatment of the eyes and, when swallowed, “cures bloody fluxes.” He also believed that pigeon dung could relieve a host of ailments, including headaches, pleurisy, apoplexy and lethargy. How the dung was administered remains a mystery though.
A Native American healer from Quebec saved the birds’ gizzards, stringing them up to dry and used them in the treatment of gallstones. She claimed that because the pigeons ingested small stones, pebbles and grit (which aided the birds digestive abilities) without any apparent ill effect, the gizzard therefore had the power to dissolve the stones. If her patients had gallstones, she reasonably concluded, and the patient ingested the pigeon gizzards, the pigeon gizzards would make the patients gallstones disappear.
End of Part One.
Part Two will examine the reasons for the birds’ quick decline and disappearance. It will also take a look at early efforts to bring the species back into existence, along with other extinct species like Woolly Mammoths, using high-technology, genes, DNA, cloning, and other methods that are being tested and already underway.