The Passenger Pigeon – 100 Years On

September 1st 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), a stark reminder of the destruction humanity can inflict on the natural world.

It is estimated that when Europeans first arrived on the coasts of North America, the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant land bird in the country, with numbers ranging from 3 billion to 5 billion individuals – accounting for over 25% of the entire bird population. For over two hundred years, there were dramatic accounts told of the dense clouds formed by migrating Passenger Pigeons, blacking out the sky for days at a time with flocks a mile wide.

Passenger Pigeons would migrate around the country, moving whenever weather conditions or food availability became unfavourable, settling down in forested areas to roost. The roosting sites were often massive; though no accurate data was collected, estimates place nesting sites as covering many thousands of acres. One report of a site in Wisconsin estimated the roosting area to cover 850 square miles, housing over 136 million birds.

The decline of the Passenger Pigeon:
Passenger Pigeons had always been used as a food source by both Colonialists and Native Americans, however this had no real effect on the massive populations. The real damage started in the 1800s, when professional hunters began to trap the birds for sale at the town markets. Because of the dense populations found at nesting sites, Passenger Pigeons were captured in the hundreds of thousands – young birds were knocked out of nests with sticks, and burning sulphur fumes used to daze the birds so that they fell to the ground. 50,000 birds a day were killed over a period of five months at one of the last large nesting sites in Michigan, 1878. Those that survived were quickly tracked to their new nest sites by hunters and killed before they were able to raise young.

By the 1890s the bird had almost completely disappeared. In 1897 a bill was passed asking for a 10-year ban on the hunting of Passenger Pigeons – unfortunately the damage had been done by this point. The success of the Passenger Pigeon depended on its large numbers, as massive flocks were relatively unharmed by predators and adverse conditions, whereas the few surviving individuals were simply picked off.

Martha: the Last Passenger Pigeon:
There were not enough birds left to recover the species, despite numerous attempts with captive animals – a common problem we’re facing with many endangered species today. The last known Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden on September 1st 1914 at 1pm. Martha was mounted and is now preserved in the collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

What can we learn from the Pigeon’s fate?
The attack on Passenger Pigeons by humans was two-fold – the slaughter certainly hastened their extinction, though it is likely that they were doomed by the deforestation that swept across North America. The lesson of the Passenger Pigeon is a poignant one that we shouldn’t forget, and is a reminder that the destruction of a species should not be allowed to continue until they appear on the ‘critically endangered’ list – by that point it may be too late to undo the damage.

Today, the only way to see a Passenger Pigeon is by visiting a museum, as fortunately specimens have been saved by 19th century collectors. These skins and mounts are the last remnants of a once thriving species and must be preserved for future generations to appreciate – museums provide access to extinct and endangered species for education, research and to satisfy (and enhance!) curiosity.  If you’d like to see a Passenger Pigeon for yourself, why not visit Leeds Museum Discovery Centre to see one of the seven specimens in the collection?

Glenn Roadley, Trainee Curator of Natural Science


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