What became of the passenger pigeons?

Two hundred years ago the passenger pigeon, a migratory pigeon slightly larger than the turtledove, was probably the most numerous bird throughout most of the United States and southern Canada east of the Great Plains. John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, early naturalists, reported seeing these pigeons flying in flocks seven or eight miles long, more than a mile wide and so compact that the sun was hidden from view as they passed. When one of these flocks, estimated to contain from one to two billion birds, settled on a forest for the night, trees broke under their weight. Audubon calculated that a flock of such size would require nine million bushels of feed a day. The cooing of “the birds and the whirring of their wings were so loud that the report of a gun could not be heard. Several inches of dung were left under their roosting places. During the. breeding season hundreds of them would nest in a single tree. In 1857 a game committee of the Ohio legislature reported that this bird needed no protection. “Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food,” declared the report, “it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.” Yet less than sixty years later the passenger pigeon was extinct. Authentic records indicate that the last passenger pigeon at large was seen in 1898, although there are more or less reliable records of individual birds being seen in the wild state as late as 1907. The last known survivor was a captive bird that died in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in September, 1914. When this bird’s-mate died in 1910, $1,000 was offered for another, but none was ever found. Many theories have been advanced to account for the complete disappearance of these spectacular and interesting birds. It is probably not true, as generally supposed, that this pigeon disappeared suddenly and mysteriously while it was still quite numerous. Some believe that these birds migrated in mass to another part of the world, that they were blown out to sea by a storm and drowned, that they were killed by forest fires, epidemics, tornadoes, snowstorms or other similar causes. One writer believes the birds were destroyed by a species of chicken mite introduced from Europe. He reported that during the seventies and eighties of the last century he found thousands of dead squabs under the trees where the pigeons were nesting. Upon examination they were found to be covered with mites. Perhaps many factors contributed to the extinction of this species. The early settlers and hunters shot them, by thousands and knocked them down’ with clubs and poles. Millions of them—even carloads of them—were shipped to market. Shortly after the Civil War the commercial hunting of passenger pigeons became systematic. In 1879 these birds were selling on the Chicago market at from fifty to sixty cents a dozen. Pigeon hunters made from ten to forty dollars a day. The last large nesting of passenger pigeons on record was near Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878. It was from thirty to forty miles long and several miles wide. Indians and boys captured large numbers of the birds at a cent apiece. It is generally believed by naturalists that the indiscriminate slaughter of the birds by man was the chief factor that led to their ultimate extinction. This cause may have been aided by the destruction of the forests within their range. Also, being communistic in their habits, the species may have been unable to adapt itself to more solitary feeding, migrating, roosting and nesting habits. At any fate, as civilization encroached upon the wilderness the birds began “to disappear and kept on disappearing until there wasn’t a single specimen living. The common mourning or turtledove and the band-tailed wild pigeon of the Pacific coast superficially resemble the passenger pigeon and this fact accounts for frequent reports that the latter is still seen occasionally in out-of-the-way places. The band-tailed pigeon (Columba fasciara), which sometimes ranges as far east as Colorado and Texas, is distinguished from the passenger pigeon by its short, even tail. Fortunately many stuffed specimens of the extinct passenger pigeon have been preserved by museums.