By Emily Beliveau, Digital Project Assistant
In 1914, the passenger pigeon became extinct. The last known survivor of the species was a female named Martha (after Martha Washington), who died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914 at 1:00pm. Only 50 years earlier, passenger pigeons were so abundant that giant flocks darkened the sky for hours at a time as they passed overhead. How did the most populous bird in North America become extinct? The short answer: humans. The destruction of forest habitat along with unrestricted commercial hunting annihilated the species over the course of several decades.
The passenger pigeon was a species of pigeon most closely related to the mourning dove, with a nesting range around the Great Lakes and a migration range from central Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia in the north, to the uppermost parts of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in the south. Communal in nature and capable of flying at 60 miles per hour, huge colonies of passenger pigeons travelling and nesting were a noisy, messy spectacle. An 1866 account from southern Ontario described a migrating flock that was 1.5 km wide and 500 km long and took 14 hours to pass through the sky. Nesting groups could easily cover 100 square kilometers, with 500 birds per tree.
Imagine the scene. Birds several deep on the branches, a constant roar of wings as birds take off and land, the smell of droppings and of the pigeons themselves—people say you could smell the passing flocks—the crack of branches. So many birds that a man in Ohio could remember firing a 12-gauge pistol into a bush in the dark and bringing down 18 pigeons with the shot. And every hawk, owl, crow, raven, vulture, fox, raccoon, and weasel within miles getting fat feeding on eggs, unfortunate nestlings, and awkward squabs fresh from the nest.
–From “The Passenger Pigeon: Once There Were Billions,” an essay from Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales from Field & Street by Jerry Sullivan
Because the birds were so plentiful, the passenger pigeon was an important food source, first for the indigenous population of North America, and later for colonial settlers. When commercial hunters began selling large numbers of birds at city markets in the early 1800s, the decline in population first became noticeable. By the time legislators starting passing laws to restrict hunting the birds, it was too late for the population to recover. Deforestation, wholesale slaughter, a low reproductive rate (one egg per season), and an inability to survive in small colonies all contributed to the irreversible decline of the species. By the late 1890s, wild passenger pigeons were exceedingly rare, and despite large sums offered for live captures to use for breeding, no rewards were ever claimed.
The Huron County Museum is extremely fortunate to have a taxidermied specimen in its collection, which is on exhibit in the upper Mezzanine this fall to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction and efforts to prevent future human-related species decline.