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Passenger pigeons (juvenile, left; male, centre; female, right), from Birds of New York by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1910 – did this species survive beyond 1914? (public domain)
The most numerous species of wild bird ever known was the phenomenally plentiful passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, a dainty, slender-bodied, long-tailed bird with blue-grey head, neck, back, and wings, and cinnamon-pink underparts. It has been estimated that during the 19thCentury’s early years, its total population contained between five and ten thousand million birds. Or to put it another way, this single species may have accounted for as much as 45 per cent of the entire bird population of America! One of the most evocative descriptions of its immense numbers during its heyday appeared in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction for 16 November 1822:
The accounts of the enormous flocks in which the passenger, or wild pigeons, fly about in North America, seem to an European like the tales of Baron Munchausen; but the travellers are ‘all in a story.’ In Upper Canada, says Mr. Howison, in his entertaining ‘Sketches,’ you may kill 20 or 30 at one shot, out of the masses which darken the air. And in the United States, according to Wilson, the ornithologist, they sometimes desolate and lay waste a tract of country 40 or 50 miles long, and 5 or 6 broad, by making it their breeding-place. While in the state of Ohio, Mr. Wilson saw a flock of these birds which extended, he judged, more than a mile in breadth, and continued to pass over his head at the rate of one mile in a minute, during four hours — thus making its whole length about 240 miles. According to his moderate estimate, this flock contained two thousand two hundred and thirty millions, two hundred and seventy-two pigeons.
A flock of passenger pigeons being hunted in Louisiana, The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News, 1875 (public domain)
It seems inconceivable that less than a century after the above report had been published the passenger pigeon had been completely exterminated, but this is precisely what happened.
As a result of an unutterably ruthless, relentless programme of persecution (on a scale unparalleled even in man’s nefarious history of wildlife destruction), perpetrated by trigger-happy gun-toters attracted by the awesome spectacle of the birds’ mass migrations, by 1 September 1914 only one solitary specimen remained alive. This was a 29-year-old hen bird named ‘Martha Washington’, exhibited at Cincinnati Zoo. And shortly after noonon that fateful September day, this last humble survivor of an ostensibly indomitable, indestructible species died. The unthinkable had happened – the passenger pigeon, whose vast migrating flocks had virtually eclipsed the sun in the time of the great American painter John James Audubon, was no more.
Martha Washington, the last known passenger pigeon, pictured alive on left, and as a taxiderm specimen at Washington DC’s Smithsonian Institution on right (public domain)
Officially, that is. For at least another decade, alleged sightings of passenger pigeons were frequently reported, but scientists tended to dismiss these as mistaken observations of the smaller but closely related mourning dove Zenaida macroura, still a common species. In September 1929, however, a remarkable report emerged that could not be discarded so readily. This was the month in which Michigan University bacteriologist Prof. Philip Hadley, in the company of a Mr Foard, an old friend familiar with the land, had been hunting in a virtually uninhabited wilderness nestling within Michigan’s northern peninsula.
They had been hunting there for some time when Foard drew Hadley’s attention to a bird perched close by, and declared that it was a passenger pigeon – which he had observed in enormous numbers when younger. Needless to say, Hadley turned at once to spy this exceedingly unexpected specimen, but just as he caught sight of it the bird took flight. Nevertheless, it did seem to him to be pigeon-like in form, with a pointed tail, and he clearly believed the incident to be of significance, because he sent details to the eminent US journal Science, which in turn judged it to be important enough to warrant publication in its issue of 14 February 1930.
Passenger pigeon, from Pigeons, Sir William Jardine, 1835 (public domain)
Within his letter, Hadley also referred to a couple of other recent sightings, documented a month earlier by Kendrick Kimball in the Detroit News (5 January). One of these sightings had been made on 10 June 1929, by Robert H. Wright of Munissing, Michigan. Wright was convinced that the pair of birds that he saw at close range on Highway M-28, about 16 miles from Munissing, were passenger pigeons. In the other sighting, made between Indianapolis and Kokomo while driving from Florida, Dr Samuel R. Landes spotted a flock of approximately 15 birds that he readily identified as passenger pigeons. Both Wright and Landes were familiar with this species’ appearance — like so many others, they had shot hundreds of them during the late 1870s.
Nonetheless, the last confirmed wild specimen was shot in 1899, at Babcock, Wisconsin, so is it really possible that the birds reported three decades later by the eyewitnesses above were truly passenger pigeons? It seems rather unlikely, at least at first, because after the last major flocks had been slaughtered (in 1878), stragglers did not survive long, and matings became ever fewer. It seemed as if the species could only persist and reproduce when present in huge flocks. At the same time, of course, the familiarity of the eyewitnesses with the species makes their testimony all that more difficult to discount.
A pair of taxiderm passenger pigeons at San Antonio, Texas (© Jonathan Downes/CFZ)
Perhaps certain fairly secluded localities did house a last few specimens, which existed undetected beyond the date of Martha’s death, and possibly even mated every now and then, and which were encountered only when their flights traversed areas frequented by humans, or when humans occasionally passed by their hideaways. Yet without the immense congregations necessary to provide the stimulus for normal, full-scale reproduction, they could surely do no more than extend their species’ survival by a few years. Long before the last individual had died, whether in 1914 or in the 1930s, the passenger pigeon’s descent into extinction had already begun, irrevocably and inevitably, with the disappearance of its vast flocks. After that, it could only be a matter of time.
Surely, then, the ‘passenger pigeon’ spied in March 1965 at Homer, Michigan, by Irene Llewellyn (Fate, September 1965) and another spied the same year by Stella Fenell at New Jersey’s Park Ridge (Fate, January 1966), not to mention an intriguing series of recently-claimed passenger pigeon sightings chronicled online in 2014, 2015, and 2016 by the website HoriconBirds.com, were only mourning doves … weren’t they?
John James Audubon’s famous painting of a pair of passenger pigeons, from his spectacular tome The Birds of America, 1827-1838 (public domain)
An Antipodean equivalent of sorts is the flock pigeon Phaps (=Histriophaps)histrionica, also known as the flock bronzewing. In the 1800s, huge flocks, containing millions of birds, lived on the grass plains of New South Wales and Queensland. Today, though, it is a relatively rare species (it was once thought to be extinct), categorised as Threatened by the IUCN.
This time, however, the cause is not man himself but his animals. The flock pigeon is a seed-eater, but generations of grazing cattle and sheep have prevented the plains’ grass from seeding adequately.
Of course, courtesy of the extraordinary technological advances taking place daily in the modern-day world that we all inhabit, perhaps we should never say never in relation to the prospect of one day seeing bona fide passenger pigeons alive and well again. On 8 February 2012, a meeting was convened at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, by a group of interested researchers from the non-profit genetic research organisation Revive & Restore, to explore the technical plausibility of resurrecting this iconic species via genomic engineering, as well as to examine the potential cultural, social, political, and ecological ramifications of restoring it to life and perhaps even reintroducing it into the wild. After presentations by a range of participants and discussions concerning their contributions, the group concluded that the genetic technique proposed should be tested to see how effective it may be, and how it could be improved, with this goal in mind.
So who knows? Maybe one day the passenger pigeon will indeed return, if no longer to darken the skies with vast flocks as in former times but at least to live again in the land where it rightfully belongs and where it would certainly have remained had its existence not been wilfully extinguished by our own species.
Passenger pigeons, frontispiece to The Passenger Pigeon, 1907 (public domain)
For my tribute in verse to the passenger pigeon, please click here; and for its philatelic prominence, please click here.
This ShukerNature blog article is excerpted and expanded from my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited.
Passenger pigeon, Plate 23 in Vol 1 of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and Bahamas by Mark Catesby, George Edwards, 1754 (public domain)