The history of the passenger pigeon
By Justin Isherwood
Interesting is the name as came to be attached to the passenger pigeon. “Passenger” as if to suggest this bird was conveyed by some winged zephyr rather than actually have to fly itself. “Passenger pigeon” describes what must have been the sensation of being under such a flock. Like the one described in 1871 by residents on the Buena Vista Marsh who collectively sighted a flock that was seen in the same moment extent from Keene to Nekoosa and north to Biron and Plover town. A flock estimated as twenty-five miles square, one of the last mammoth flights recorded of this bird. On the ground the sensation was of a train passing overhead. A roaring, ominous mass, a most geological event passing over at an altitude of 150 feet. A sensation of this flock more normally given to hurricanes and blizzards. As for Moses at the Red Sea, was second place compared to the passenger pigeon.
I have wondered what naturalist of that era could have looked up at such a scene and imagined this monstrosity as was the passenger pigeon, the acknowledged sovereign of the American continent, could ever fade from the scene. Much less go extinct. From the time of this sighting of a multimillion pigeon flock over the Buena Vista Marsh to the death of the last passenger pigeon at the Cincinnati zoo on Sept 1, 1914, was a modest 43 years.
Central Wisconsin in 1871 was the principle nesting site of this migrating pigeon. A flock estimated by the naturalist A.W. Schorgerat of some 136 million breeding adults. It remains conjecture in birders’ lore what might have been the size of the original North American passenger pigeon flock. Hundreds of millions, to suggest billions? Two, three, four billions?
By the mid-1890s, twenty years after the sighting of that immense Central Wisconsin flock, passenger pigeon numbers were down to three “captive” breeding flocks. The words, captive flock, describes the loss of the instinct to migrate, the flock knowledge of where and how. For the passenger pigeon, like other migrating birds, once a generation of elders is wiped out, the flock loses its navigational memory. Without that memory the remaining scattered flocks, so-called captive flocks, were essentially marooned to the peril of northern winter. To suggest if in the end this continent of a bird was struck down not just by market hunters but because the loss of flock knowledge, lost was its way home. Lost to the warmer climes and ample forage. And how it happened a multibillion empire of a feather died out in a generation of man.
It is known that passenger pigeons in captivity could live long, that last female at the Cincinnati zoo, named Martha, was 29 years old, to suspect she was well-nourished, perhaps even medicated. To the end a wild pigeon might live half that life span, some 15 years.
In 1900 Congress passed the Lacey Act, a pioneering law intent on saving wildlife numbers that were on a continental scale facing extinction. It was the Lacey Act that helped save the last of the American Bison. Ironically that same year as occurred the sighting of the last wild passenger pigeon, somewhere in Ohio. Another was never seen, to the end the Lacey Act came too late to save the passenger pigeon. The pigeon proved a poor breeder in captivity as zoos around the country struggled to save it. It seems the impossibility of losing this continent-sized bird had arrived.
The big flock survival tactic the passenger pigeon had evolved, ultimately betrayed the species that had adapted to large flock instinct rather than smaller disassociated familial groups. Had the passenger pigeon but a little more time to evolve such a tactic. Big flock behavior enabled market hunters to descend on a roosting flock and slaughter them by the tens of thousands per night. Fueled by the flock’s sheer size, what conscience-equipped hunter ever thought they were doing nature any long term damage?
The historical suspicion is early settlers may not have had the kindest regard toward the passenger pigeon, a flock that could descend from the heavens and consume an orchard, a field, a crop. Flocks as noisy as a thunderstorm, whose method of broadcast fertilizer probably wasn’t appreciated. Somewhere in the dark heart of the average Midwest settler was the thought the world would be better off without the passenger pigeon. Only to wonder how the modern world would handle a 3-4 billion bird flock? A flock to give ordinary air travel some Hitchcock horror movie quality.
On the flip side, what might have been our modern sporting scene, and a classic American cuisine evolved from the presence of a viable passenger pigeon? Could the passenger pigeon have remained a productive market bird, a wild-wing version of Kentucky Fried? It still amazes that a bird as abundant as the passenger pigeon, billions of birds in 1871, was extinct by 1914. To wonder if given the evolved characteristics of the passenger pigeon, that once below some critical threshold the flock was doomed.
Naturalists including Aldo Leopold have routinely underestimated the ability of species to adapt. The whitetail was first thought incapable of adjusting to farmland and human presence, Leopold wrote of the sandhill crane as an essential symbol of the wilderness. To the end I feel ever so much better about my fields, about modern agriculture because of Leopold’s forecast. My fields the more wilderness because of those cranes. Turkeys were thought able to thrive only in the mild winters of Tennessee and Kentucky, ok, maybe Indiana.
Might the passenger pigeon have adapted if with a little more time? We will never know. The passenger pigeon remains a civilizational guilt. How we screwed over a natural marvel.
There exists the chance for the potential of a DNA rebirth of the passenger pigeon. Stories are the return of a wooly mammoth is underway (in Russia, a theme park). Various journals and articles have spoken of the passenger pigeon as a likely candidate for a DNA redux. Viable surrogates include numerous pigeon species including the mourning dove as the blood-line in the re-genesis of the passenger pigeon.
The passenger pigeon’s fate remains a resource tutorial, an original sin for history and human society. Of how often we underestimate the impact of civilization and overestimate a resource’s ability to endure, whether of the oceans, the atmosphere, the aquifer, or a species that once numbered in the billions.