The Passing Of The Passenger Pigeon

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The passenger pigeon had many appealing qualities. According to Audubon, the males, belligerent in defense of the nests, were exceptionally affectionate with their mates and shared equally in the care of the young. It is also said that the birds would adopt and feed nestlings whose parents had been killed. The characteristic sometimes known as a sixth sense was developed in an unusual way in the passenger pigeon. When a nesting area had been selected, flocks would stream to it from all quarters, directed there by a mechanism as unerring as it was uncanny. Wilson is authority for the statement that, more mysteriously still, when a migrating flock was jumped by a hawk, its evasive movement would be repeated by succeeding groups, as if each were following a trail plainly marked in the air.

The passenger pigeon had one other noteworthy characteristic. It was edible.

Before the settlement of America, it was customary for villages of Indians to camp on the outskirts of the nesting areas and feast upon the squabs for a month or more at a time. According to an early traveler, Indian villages of no more than seventeen houses would be found to have on hand a hundred gallons or more of pigeon oil or fat, which was used as butter. An account of the hunting of pigeons written by a botanist in the 1740*8 contains the significant statement that the Indians would not allow the molestation of the parents while the young were dependent upon them, “pretending that it would be a great pity on their young, which would in that case have to starve to death.”

The white man brought to the New World a different set of values and different weapons. As early as 1672, there appeared this ominous statement by a New England settler: “But of late they [the pigeons] are much diminished, the English taking them with nets.”

Not only nets, but all conceivable methods of killing were employed both in the breeding colonies and winter roosts and by every village and farm through which the migrating flocks passed in spring and autumn. It is abundantly testified that the sprayed pellets from one blast of a fowling piece might bring down from ten to one hundred birds, so dense were the flocks. In netting, advantage was taken of the pigeons’ craving for salt at the end of the breeding season. Salt or salted mud was spread upon the area over which the net was to be dropped, or, on the New England coast, nets were spread above the salt springs. In the latter case, as many as 1,500 pigeons could be trapped at one time. It was customary for farms to keep captive a pigeon whose eyelids had been sewn up or whose eyes had been put out. These blinded birds served as decoys, their cries bringing the wild migrating flocks to alight where the nets had been set.

The whites joined the Indians in camping at the nesting sites. Not content with the slow process of dislodging the squabs with poles, however, the whites cut down the trees and took the dead away by the horse-load. Unsatisfied even by these returns, they resorted to a method of mass-butchery that left no room for improvement. Approaching at night, the hunting parties would set fire to the grass and under-brush in a circle around a portion of the nesting colony. The pigeons, driven out of their heads by panic, would dash into the conflagration and be roasted alive. The next morning they would be gathered from heaps two feet deep.

While the pigeons flocked in an area, they were served on every table, in every town, on every farm, in every inn. They were eaten, as Wilson wrote, “until the very name became sickening,” and more were salted away. Early records state that wild pigeons were a staple of the poor. Their importance to the economy of the young colonies must have been incalculable.

The slaughter appears to have proceeded over the years at an ever-accelerating pace. Yet Audubon, after describing one of the scenes of carnage, wrote that “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.”

The destruction of our forests would have indeed reduced the flocks that in Audubon’s lifetime frequently took three days to pass. It is also undeniable that in reading the stories of the prodigious hordes of these birds and of the damage they inflicted upon themselves when the limbs of trees torn loose under their weight would smash to death the birds on lower branches, one has a feeling of something unreal and impossible about these multitudes. It seems outside the scheme of nature for any species to achieve a position of such dominance, to teem in such billions that self-destruction is an inevitable consequence.

Even without the agency of the white man, it is possible that in time something would have occurred to scale the passenger pigeons’ numbers down—the increase of natural enemies, the development of parasites, or epidemic disease. But obliteration was certainly not marked out for the species by any process of nature, or even rendered inevitable by the fate that befell the forests the pigeons inhabited. There would seem to be no reason why the passenger pigeon could not have survived in flocks of thousands in the woods that yet remain, and it might, like many other birds of the wilderness, have adapted itself to civilization if it had been given a chance.