In the fall of 1914, as the newly born World War I raged in Europe, there was another, more quiet death in the Cincinnati Zoo. That day Martha, the last passenger pigeon on earth, breathed her last and fell lifeless to the bottom of her cage.
Many animals that have gone extinct at the hands of man were never numerous. The ivory-billed woodpecker, now perhaps rediscovered, was always greatly restricted in both numbers and habitat, as were Bachman’s warbler and the dusky seaside sparrow. But others, such as the Carolina parakeet—America’s only native parrot—and the giant auk of the North Atlantic, were once common.
The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), however, was more than common. John James Audubon, riding the 55 miles between Henderson and Louisville, Kentucky, in the autumn of 1813, reported that a flock of passenger pigeons flew overhead the entire day, spreading from horizon to horizon. He estimated the number of birds at a billion. Another flock in Ontario in 1866 was a mile wide and three hundred miles long, numbering perhaps as many as 3.5 billion birds, all racing ahead at 60 miles an hour.
And yet the last wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1900, only 34 years later, and one of the world’s greatest natural wonders—the avian equivalent of Niagara Falls, Yosemite, or the Grand Canyon—was gone. How could such a thing have happened?
The answer lies in the peculiar habits of this singular bird and the emerging technology of the nineteenth century. Larger than a mourning dove, slate blue above and russet below, the passenger pigeon was not only the most abundant bird on earth, it was also the most social. It nested often a hundred pairs to a tree, and the nesting grounds could be a mile wide and 80 miles long, each pair laying a single egg. Like many pigeons, the parents would feed the squabs till they were butterball fat and then abandon them. The squabs, too fat to fly, would flutter to the ground and wander around, learning to feed themselves before taking to the air. With millions of fat squabs unable to fly, the local predators—foxes, coyotes, weasels, and bobcats—would have a field day. But the sheer number of birds assured that only a tiny fraction of the whole would be taken. Once the squabs were gone, the passenger pigeon flock would not nest in the same area again for years, perhaps decades. No one knew where they would nest the following year.
But while the natural predators could only wait for the pigeons to show up, once the telegraph and the railroad were in place, human beings could converge on the bonanza of squabs wherever it was located and exploit it to the hilt year after year. One man reported firing his 12-gauge shotgun into a tree of nesting pigeons and having 18 of them fall dead to the ground. With nets, squabs by the hundreds of thousands could be rounded up, killed, gutted, and defeathered, and packed in barrels to be rushed to market.
Under such ruthless exploitation, the number of passenger pigeons began to fall sharply. Then, as the flocks got smaller, a strange thing happened: The pigeons just stopped breeding. Apparently, passenger pigeons needed the fellowship of millions of their fellows to stimulate nesting and breeding behavior. When a flock fell below a critical—and very large—number, reproduction ceased and the population crashed. The last sizable wild flock was destroyed by hunters in 1893.
Most of the country’s major natural history museums have stuffed specimens of the passenger pigeon that you can go and see. And you should, if only to get a glimpse of what our ancestors, without meaning to, took from us. But while you can see the individual specimens, you cannot see the skies darkened by them in their countless millions or hear the roar of a billion pairs of wings. The still beautiful birds behind glass in museums are only the palest shadow of what they were in life. As the great naturalist Aldo Leopold explained, “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums but they are dead to all hardships and to all delights. They cannot dive out of a cloud, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather, they live forever by not living at all.”
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