The Passing Of The Passenger Pigeon

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On September 1, 1914, a bird named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. In covering the news of the day the New York Times devoted half a column to the change in the name of the Russian capital from St. Petersburg to Petrograd and equal space to a defeat of the New York Yankees by the Detroit Tigers. Most of the first three or four pages were, of course, filled by news of the great war that had just begun: me Allied armies were lulling back toward Paris before the initial German offensive; a “daring aeronaut” from Germany had dropped lour bombs upon the French capital; and the American colony led by the American ambassador was petitioning the United States government to protest this inhuman innovation in the conduct of war. There was nothing about the death of Martha at the age of twenty-nine. And yet her demise was the final event in the history of a slaughter as massive in the annals of the animal kingdom as the slaughter then beginning in France was to be in human history. For Martha was the last of the passenger pigeons.

When the first European settlers arrived in the New World, the passenger pigeon in all probability out-numbered any other species of bird in the world. At that time it was found throughout the forest that covered eastern North America, breeding in the North and wintering in the South. It lived in flocks at all seasons, and these flocks were of such magnitude that nowhere had anything resembling them been seen before.

It requires an effort, and is perhaps impossible, to visualize the passenger pigeon’s numbers even from the circumstantial accounts that have come down to us. In the vast tract of hardwoods that extended over Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, some of the nesting sites were three miles wide and thirty long. From descriptions of the density of the nests, which sometimes numbered as many as one hundred to a tree, it has been computed that one such zone of ninety square miles must have contained fifty-seven million birds. The scenes presented by these nestings stupefied all who beheld them. James Fenimore Cooper, groping for words adequate to the spectacle, wrote that he was reduced to silence by “admiration of the works of the Creator.” In any case, he added, speaking would have been futile since human voices were inaudible in the pandemonium of the pigeons.

Unlike the notes of most other pigeons and doves, which are soft and muted, the cries of the passenger pigeon were loud, shrill, and scolding. Presumably, like the human city-dweller, it had to speak loud and often to gain a hearing above the din created by its fellows. Travelers approaching a nesting site would begin to hear the clamor at a distance of several miles and once upon the fringes of the flock had to bawl into one another’s ears to be understood, while their horses were terrified by the noise. As the squabs grew to maturity, danger was added to bedlam: branches breaking under the weight of the birds might kill anyone upon whom they fell. With the departure of the pigeons, a scene of weird devastation remained. Every plant was killed. Droppings to a depth of several inches covered the ground, which was further littered with limbs; for miles upon end the forest would appear to have been struck by a violent hurricane. In their winter roostings, the birds were packed even more densely. Describing one of these roosts in the South, an English traveler in 1819 declared that within a circumference of four to six miles the trees were bent and broken under the hosts of pigeons “piled upon them like swarming bees.”

Yet even such scenes were hardly to be compared with those that met the gaze of the awe-struck early Americans when in the spring the flocks gathered in the South, and the tremendous movement northward began. It was from these mass migrations that the bird derived its somewhat peculiar name, “passenger,” meaning a bird of passage.

It is legendary that the flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky. This seems to have been the literal truth. In addition to obscuring the sun, they were said to have created “a wind and rushing sound like that of the greatest cataracts.” Alexander Wilson, the Scottish ornithologist who came to America in the early years of the past century at about the same time as the more famous Frenchman, John James Audubon, wrote of his first encounter with a migrating flock of passenger pigeons that he took the “sudden rushing roar, succeeded by instant darkness,” for the winds of a tornado.

Later, Wilson had a chance to estimate the size of one of these flocks, a column he saw passing between Frankfort, Kentucky, and what was then the territory of Indiana. “If,” he wrote, “we suppose this column to have been one mile in breadth (and I believe it to have been much more) and that it moved at the rate of one mile in a minute, four hours, the time it continued passing, would make its whole length 240 miles. Again, supposing that each square yard of this moving body comprehended three pigeons, the square yards in the whole space, multiplied by three, would give two thousand, two hundred and thirty million, two hundred and seventy-two thousand Pigeons.”