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In Memoriam, The Passenger Pigeon

pigeon The last passenger pigeon the world will ever know died September 1, 1914. At the time, the event was little regarded. The onrushing war held greater sway on people’s imaginations. But as the years pass, it becomes ever more clear that this death of a bird in a cage, a bird stolen from nature and given the prosaic name of Martha, that this death, in Donne’s words, diminished all of us. For the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird in North America, was no more, a victim of human greed and our capacity for mindless destruction.

Audubon drew a pair of them, drew them from dead birds he shot himself, and showed a pair sharing food. He lived in the heyday of the pigeon, in the great dreamtime, when they blackened the skies of eastern North America. He wrote of their speed, their beauty, and especially of their incredible abundance:

“The multitudes of Wild Pigeons in our woods are astonishing. Indeed, after having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact. Yet I have seen it all, and that too in the company of persons who, like myself, were struck with amazement.

“In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day 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.” [from Volume V of his Birds of America, full text available on the web]

John Muir devoted a full five pages of his autobiography to these wonderful birds which, by 1910, were extinct in the wild:

“It was a great memorable day when the first flock of passenger pigeons came to our farm, calling to mind the story we had read about them when we were at school in Scotland. Of all God’s feathered people that sailed the Wisconsin sky, no other bird seemed to us so wonderful. The beautiful wanderers flew like the winds in flocks of millions from climate to climate in accord with the weather, finding their food–acorns, beechnuts, pine-nuts, cranberries, strawberries, huckleberries, juniper berries, hackberries, buckwheat, rice, wheat, oats, corn–in fields and forests thousands of miles apart. I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray. How wonderful the distances they flew in a day–in a year–in a lifetime! They arrived in Wisconsin in the spring just after the sun had cleared away the snow, and alighted in the woods to feed on the fallen acorns that they had missed the previous autumn. A comparatively small flock swept thousands of acres perfectly clean of acorns in a few minutes, by moving straight ahead with a broad front. All got their share, for the rear constantly became the van by flying over the flock and alighting in front, the entire flock constantly changing from rear to front, revolving something like a wheel with a low buzzing wing roar that could be heard a long way off. In summer they feasted on wheat and oats and were easily approached as they rested on the trees along the sides of the field after a good full meal, displaying beautiful iridescent colors as they moved their necks backward and forward when we went very near them. Every shotgun was aimed at them and everybody feasted on pigeon pies, and not a few of the settlers feasted also on the beauty of the wonderful birds. The breast of the male is a fine rosy red, the lower part of the neck behind and along the sides changing from the red of the breast to gold, emerald green and rich crimson. The general color of the upper parts is grayish blue, the under parts white. The extreme length of the bird is about seventeen inches; the finely modeled slender tail about eight inches, and extent of wings twentyfour inches. The females are scarcely less beautiful. “Oh, what bonnie, bonnie birds!” we exclaimed over the first that fell into our hands. “Oh, what colors! Look at their breasts, bonnie as roses, and at their necks aglow wi’ every color juist like the wonderfu’ wood ducks. Oh, the bonnie, bonnie creatures, they beat a’! Where did they a’ come fra, and where are they a’ gan? It’s awfu’ like a sin to kill them!” To this some smug, practical old sinner would remark: “Aye, it’s a peety, as ye say, to kill the bonnie things, but they were made to be killed, and sent for us to eat as the quails were sent to God’s chosen people, the Israelites, when they were starving in the desert ayont the Red Sea. And I must confess that meat was never put up in neater, handsomer-painted packages.” [from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, full text on the web at the John Muir Exhibit]

Muir went on to quote extensively from Audubon’s account of a pigion hunt (may we now call it a slaughter?) when he observed the following scene:

“Let us now, kind reader, inspect their place of nightly rendezvous. One of these curious roosting-places, on the banks of the Green river in Kentucky, I repeatedly visited. It was, as is always the case, in a portion of the forest where the trees were of great magnitude, and where there was little under-wood. I rode through it upwards of forty miles, and, crossing it in different parts, found its average breadth to be rather more than three miles.

“My first view of it was about a fortnight subsequent to the period when they had made choice of it, and I arrived there nearly two hours before sunset. Few Pigeons were then to be seen, but a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments on the borders. Two farmers from the vicinity of Russelsville, distant more than a hundred miles, had driven upwards of three hundred hogs to be fattened on the pigeons which were to be slaughtered. Here and there, the people employed in plucking and salting what had already been procured, were seen sitting in the midst of large piles of these birds. The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting-place. Many trees two feet in diameter, I observed, were broken off at no great distance from the ground; and the branches of many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if the forest had been swept by a tornado. Every thing proved to me that the number of birds resorting to this part of the forest must be immense beyond conception. As the period of their arrival approached, their foes anxiously prepared to receive them. Some were furnished with iron-pots containing sulphur, others with torches of pine-knots, many with poles, and the rest with guns. The sun was lost to our view, yet not a Pigeon had arrived. Every thing was ready, and all eyes were gazing on the clear sky, which appeared in glimpses amidst the tall trees. Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of “Here they come!” The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent, as well as wonderful and almost terrifying, sight presented itself. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses were formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading.

“No one dared venture within the line of devastation. The hogs had been penned up in due time, the picking up of the dead and wounded being left for the next morning’s employment.

“The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in the number of those that arrived. The uproar continued the whole night; and as I was anxious to know to what distance the sound reached, I sent off a man, accustomed to perambulate the forest, who, returning two hours afterwards, informed me he had heard it distinctly when three miles distant from the spot. Towards the approach of day, the noise in some measure subsided: long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons began to move off in a direction quite different from that in which they had arrived the evenin before, and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howlings of the wolve now reached our ears, and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, racoons, opossums and pole-cats were seen sneaking off, whilst eagles and hawks of different species accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them, and enjoy their share of the spoil.

“It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The Pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.

“Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease, as they not unfrequently quadruple their numbers yearly, and always at least double it. In 1805 I saw schooners loaded in bulk with Pigeons caught up the Hudson river, coming in to the wharf at New York, when the birds sold for a cent a piece. I knew a man in Pennsylvania, who caught and killed upwards of 500 dozens in a clap-net in one day, sweeping sometimes twenty dozens or more at a single haul. In the month of March 1830, they were so abundant in the markets of New York, that piles of them met the eye in every direction. I have seen the Negroes at the United States’ Salines or Saltworks of Shawanee Town, wearied with killing Pigeons, as they alighted to drink the water issuing from the leading pipes, for weeks at a time; and yet in 1826, in Louisiana, I saw congregated flocks of these birds as numerous as ever I had seen them before, during a residence of nearly thirty years in the United States.” [op. cit.]

Note the phrase, “nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease.” Could Audubon have imagined that habitat destruction could lead to the extinction of a species so numerous and one, moreover, with a wide variety of acceptible foods? He only talks about their possible decrease should there be a gradual diminution of our forests. Instead, our forests, especially those favored by the flocks for nesting, have been nearly wiped out and the birds subjected to a sustained slaughter amounting to tens of millions per year in the decades following the civil war. Audubon described how the pigeons’ nesting sites were destroyed to make it easier for the hunters to gather their prey:

Here [at the nesting sites] again, the tyrant of the creation, man, interferes, disturbing the harmony of this peaceful scene. As the young birds grow up, their enemies, armed with axes, reach the spot, to seize and destroy all they can. The trees are felled, and made to fall in such a way that the cutting of one causes the overthrow of another, or shakes the neighbouring trees so much, that the young Pigeons, or squabs, as they are named, are violently hurried to the ground. In this manner also, immense quantities are destroyed.” [op. cit.]

Muir’s account quoted above refers to the enormous flocks he saw in the 1850’s. By the turn of the century, only a few scattered birds were left. As late as 1896 there was only one remaining flock (only one!) of about 250,000 birds. In April of that year, a large group of hunters found them and opened fire. By the end of the day, only 5,000 remained alive. They were doomed.

In 1900, the last wild passenger pigeon the world will ever know was killed in Ohio. It was stuffed and put in the State Museum. Nine years later, the species was down to three individuals, two males and a female held at the zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio. The males died in 1910. The female, Martha, last of her kind, died at 1 P.M. on September 1, 1914.

Aldo Leopold wrote:

“The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life.” [Sand County Almanac. “On A Monument to the Pigeon”]

3 comments to In Memoriam, The Passenger Pigeon

  • gr

    amazing. That was cool

  • JJja

    Human atrocity on nature. shame.!!!!!!

  • William McClenahan

    Watch your sources. Joel Greenberg” recent “A Feathered River Across the Sky,” clearly dissects the 1896 “hunt” which is endlessly rehashed on the internet. It is fiction. Pigeon numbers were too low at that time. Its more than a decade too late. He shows how this initially unattributed article about the hunt has no basis in the literature or reports of the time by orinthologists or newspapers.

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