- Historic Sites
The Passing Of The Passenger Pigeon
These wild birds once inhabited North America by the billions. Yet in three centuries they were exterminated by “civilized” man
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Audubon did not foresee the rapid growth of our cities and the extension of the railroads that gave men access to the hinterland. It was these developments, and the attendant appearance of the professional pigeon trapper, that raised the tempo of the slaughter to its highest pitch. The climax came in the 1870’s, when it was estimated that several thousand trappers were devoting their full time to the destruction of the pigeons, following them from one nesting to another—these in addition, of course, to the unnumbered thousands who simply killed pigeons whenever opportunity offered.
It was in this same period that the massacre of the bison took place. Between 1869, the year the Union Pacific’s transcontinental line was completed, and 1883, the third year after the completion of another transcontinental line by the Northern Pacific, the number of bison was reduced from an estimated five million to 740. The slaughter of the fur seal began at the same time and in the end left but 200,000 of the original herds of over three million.
In those days the market stalls of every city and town were piled high with game—and game then included not only bison, deer, elk, pigeons, grouse, turkeys, ducks and geese, and other waterfowl, but also robins, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, and other songbirds, some of which, like the bobolink, were shot by the tens and hundreds of thousands. Everything that flew or that walked on four feet was killed for the table, for its fur or feathers, or for fun.
Although the day was to come when over two thousand dollars would be offered in -vain for the discovery of a nest or colony, there were times in the past when passenger pigeons sold for a penny a bird or even three pence a dozen. One person remembers having been offered for a penny as many birds as he could carry away. When human appetites were glutted, the pigeons were fed to dogs and hogs.
With the growth of large cities, however, the profits of the trade were assured. Schooners were loaded in bulk with squabs for New York from a breeding colony in the Catskills; one record speaks of fifteen tons of ice being required for packing. From 1866 to 1876, ten million birds were shipped each nesting season from the great mid-western flocks, in addition to those consumed locally. Since these were brooding birds, fully half as many young were left to perish in the nests, while countless wounded birds were invariably left behind by the hunters to die a lingering death. The flocks sought new nesting grounds in vain; the pigeoneers hunted them everywhere.
The peak of the slaughter was reached in 1878 with the eradication of the mighty colony at Petoskey, just south of the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan. According to one account, five freight-car loads of pigeons left from the town every day for thirty days.
From then on, the decline of the passenger pigeon was precipitous. It is accounted for not only by the slaughter of the adults and marketable squabs and the starvation of the smaller young but also by the total disruption of the breeding cycle of the species. Following the Petoskey massacre, the major remaining flocks appear to have sought refuge in Manitoba, where, however, their numbers diminished rapidly. The effect of late snowstorms upon their nesting may have been a factor in their disappearance there, which was complete by the 1890’s.
The last large nesting was in Grand Traverse County, Michigan, in 1881, and probably included a million birds. The nesting took place in a birch woods, and Chief Pokagon of the Michigan Indians described in the reminiscence he wrote how the dry bark of the trees was ignited, and the birds perished in the roaring, leaping flames. In addition to the larger number killed in this fashion, twenty thousand were trapped and sent to Coney Island, where, weakened by confinement, they were released to be shot down in a trap-shooting contest.
This kind of sport was apparently too much for public opinion even in those days. Laws against molesting the birds at their nesting sites had been on the books in various states since 1862. These, however, were honored more often in the breach than in the observance.
The truth was that there were not many more left to kill. Yet still the profiteers of the pigeon trade shouted down the appeals for more forceful protective legislation made by a minority who were appalled and sickened by the fury of the slaughter.
The bison was saved on the brink of extinction through the preservation of captive herds. The passenger pigeon could likewise have been saved, for it bred readily in captivity, but only a few pairs were kept alive, and these proved insufficient to start a self-perpetuating flock. The legend of its inexhaustibility doomed it. No one upon seeing his last wild passenger pigeon dreamed that he would never see another. In every locality it was supposed that the pigeon had simply moved elsewhere.
The last scattered shipments of pigeons to the markets took place in 1893. They amounted to a few thousand birds. It was at the headwaters of the Au Sable River, in the north-central part of the Michigan peninsula, three years later, that Pokagon, himself the last of the Potawatomi chiefs, found the last breeding colony—a few dozen pairs. In his account of the species, Pokagon included a sentence that may serve as its epitaph: “It was proverbial with our fathers that if the Great Spirit in His wisdom could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form, and movement, he never did.”