The Passing Of The Passenger Pigeon

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Even conceding Wilson’s reputation as a careful observer, is it possible to credit this astronomical figure? Three pigeons to a square yard sounds like an exaggeration, but probably Wilson meant not only a square yard but a cubic yard, or more. Moreover, the passenger pigeon seems to have flown in very dense formation. There are many stories of the numbers that could be brought down by flailing a long pole in a low-flying flock, while one man has recounted how, finding such a flock bearing down upon him, he had to fall upon his face to escape having his eyes put out by the rain of winged projectiles above his head.

Accepting the figure of three birds to a cubic yard, how much faith may we place in Wilson’s estimate of the flock’s speed? Many observers, including Audubon, who himself estimated the size of a flock he beheld at over one billion, spoke of the passenger pigeon as flying a mile a minute. The speed of birds in the past was often overestimated, but Audubon offers supporting evidence. He recorded that passenger pigeons killed in New York had been found to have crops filled with rice they could not have eaten north of South Carolina. At the bird’s high rate of metabolism, he computed that the flight must have been made in six hours or less, which would not have been possible at a speed under sixty miles an hour.

Perhaps there are errors in these statistics. Nevertheless, the domesticated homing pigeon has been clocked at a speed of a mile a minute, and the passenger pigeon, with its wild vigor, its beautifully proportioned, tapering lines, and its exceptionally powerful wing muscles, was undoubtedly a faster bird. Enormous speed and endurance were, indeed, essential to the survival of its legions. The congregation of fifty million birds in a single nesting area over a period of five or six weeks would obviously deplete the food supply for scores of miles around. The passenger pigeons, having to feed not only themselves but their lusty young, did in fact clean huge areas of forest bare of berries and nuts, especially of acorns and beechnuts. While feeding, the flock rolled over the forest like a tremendous wheel, the last ranks always in process of flying over their fellows on the ground and settling at the head of the procession. Such was the strength of instinctive communal discipline that no pigeon, it was said, would rise and fly ahead of the flock until it found itself at the very tail. As the nesting season progressed, the birds would of course have to go farther and farther afield, until at the end flocks were reportedly forced to make round trips of two hundred miles or more—and to make them at a prodigious speed in order that the young might not want for food.

Wilson believed the flock he saw near Frankfort to have been much greater than his estimated total. If, as seems likely, this flock actually included upwards of two billion, that would mean, on the basis of modern computations, that it contained about one-fiftieth of all the birds in the entire world! At the very least, according to a conservative estimate, the passenger pigeon flocks represented from twenty-five to forty per cent of the bird population of the United States. We may realize in some degree the abundance that America offered our ancestors if we reflect that all the ducks and geese surviving on the continent by 1947 (taking the figures of the Fish and Wildlife Service) would, if added to that one flock of passenger pigeons, have increased its numbers by only two per cent.

Those who witnessed the maneuvers of these winged hosts were left breathlesss. Wilson observed that “the whole, with its glittery undulations, marked a space on the face of the heavens resembling the windings of a vast and majestic river. When this bend became very great, the birds, as if sensible of the unnecessary circuitous course they were taking, suddenly changed their direction so that what was in column before became an immense front, straightening all its indentures, until it swept the heavens in one vast and infinitely extended line.” Audubon declared: “I cannot describe … the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions.” He added that in “almost solid masses they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.”

Those who knew the passenger pigeon best spoke as feelingly of its superiority of form and bearing as of its numbers and impetuosity on the wing. One whose knowledge of pigeons is derived only from the ever-familiar domestic breed, a descendant of the Mediterranean rock dove, can have no idea of the passenger pigeon’s reputed style. Photographs show it tapered at both ends, like a bobbin, with its long, pointed tail accounting for nearly half its length, which was between sixteen and seventeen inches. It measured about two feet between the tips of its similarly tapered and pointed wings. The mourning dove, which is still common over most of our country, presents a fair approximation of the passenger pigeon’s outlines. It is, however, a much smaller and in every sense more pallid bird. The male passenger pigeon had a rich bluish-slate back and a “wine-colored” or “reddish-fawn” breast with sheens of golden bronze and purple bronze on the sides of its neck. The female was less vivid. Set in the characteristically mild physiognomy of a dove, its eyes, as described by Wilson, were “brilliant, fiery orange.”