Remembering Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon – Lessons from the Past

By dgross August 29, 2014
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Passenger Pigeon specimen at Everhart Museum, Scranton, by Bill Williams, PGC

Only a century ago, North America lost the Passenger Pigeon when Martha, the last of her tribe, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. For wildlife conservation in America, this is a date for all to remember because there are so many lessons learned from this event and so many changes that came with these lessons. The downward spiral and eventual loss of this most abundant bird on the continent is a story of a species “that became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” Modern day conservation organizations, wildlife agencies, regulations, and hunting seasons are all legacies of the extinction of Passenger Pigeon. We learned that even impossibly abundant species can be lost through foolish human behavior, so it is smart to “keep common birds common” as part of our conservation strategy. Basic inventory and monitoring birds are vital parts of this approach to best manage our wildlife populations. Involvement of the public in all aspects of bird science and conservation is essential for success. This “biological storm” of a bird was lost by everyone, so any prevention of future losses also involves the same broad-based involvement of the public. It is not only a story about birds, but also a very human story of tremendous loss from shortsightedness and greed.

This is one of the best-told stories about nature in America that is difficult to retell without repeating well-chosen words. Many nature and wildlife writes have written eloquently about the fantastic story of the bird and its incredible loss. As Aldo Leopold wrote: “The Passenger Pigeon was no mere bird, he was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two biotic poles of intolerable intensity: the fat of the lands and his own zest for living. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a travelling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. Once the pigeoners had subtracted from his numbers, and once the settlers had chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a putter or even a wisp of smoke.” (On a Monument to a Pigeon, 1947).

 The first population estimate of any North American bird was made for this species by Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology and Pennsylvania resident. While he was riding horseback in Kentucky on his way to Frankfort, Wilson witnessed a flock of Passenger Pigeons fly over for four hours. He estimated that the column of flying pigeons was a mile wide and perhaps even more.   Wilson calculated that the length of this flock was 240 miles with a density of about three birds per square yard. With these figures, Wilson estimated that this flock contained “two thousand two hundred and thirty millions, two hundred and seventy-two Pigeons! – an almost inconceivable multitude, and yet probably far below the actual amount.” (Now this would be written as 2,230,272,000). This was and still is hard to imagine. It is even harder to imagine that these birds are now gone completely from the earth.  

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at Cincinnati Zoo om Sept. 1, 1914

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at Cincinnati Zoo om Sept. 1, 1914

 This abundance of Passenger Pigeon extended to Pennsylvania. The original range of this large dove was most of eastern North America south of the boreal forest zone and west as far as the Rocky Mountains. This was a creature of the mature eastern deciduous forest. The main part of the breeding range was in southern New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic states including Pennsylvania, the Great Lakes region as far west as Minnesota, and Upper Mississippi Valley as far south as Kentucky.

 The Passenger Pigeon was quintessentially a nomadic species. Its huge flocks roamed great distances to take advantage of seasonally abundant mast crops, primarily acorns and beechnuts. Their migrations are legendary with flocks blackening the skies for hours. Unique among America’s forest birds, it nested in huge colonies of hundreds of thousands of pairs. These nesting colonies stretched many miles, occupying several square miles of forest. One of the last Pennsylvania colonies found in Potter County was reported as 2 miles wide and 40 miles long. Another nest colony reported from 1869 along Mehoopany Creek in Wyoming County in what is now SGL 57 was “seven miles long by two or three miles wide.” Even larger colonies were reported in the Great Lake states. These large flocks flew great distances from a colony to mast-rich feeding grounds several miles away. The “pidgeons” also had a strong preference for salt and visited salt licks in large numbers.

The Passenger Pigeon also was a formidable bird which may have comprised a quarter of the continent’s birds. It was a large, long-tailed pigeon vaguely like a larger version of the Mourning Dove but with a more colorful plumage and body parts.   Passenger Pigeons were two to three times larger than the Mourning Dove so they had an appropriately larger appetite. As Leopold expressed, this species was a formidable ecological force of nature. A foraging flock of Passenger Pigeons consumed all the mast they could reach. Passenger Pigeons consumed vast amounts of beechnuts and acorns, and some American chestnuts. They also foraged for wild fruits like grapes, cherries, dogwood berries, pokeberries, mulberries, partridgeberries, elderberries, blackberries, currents, and many others. Unfortunately, they also foraged in fields of cultivated grains including wheat, barley, rye and oats, making them legitimate agricultural pests on a grand scale. Their large flocks also weighed down tree limbs, breaking branches and causing some over laden trees to fall down. So, the ‘pigeon cities’ served as natural disturbances in the eastern deciduous forest that created openings where there were large trees and expansive canopy. Of course, the large trees also were responsible for creating vast amounts of mast that the pigeons and many other kinds of wildlife consumed. Passenger Pigeons probably competed directly with many other species for food.  

The best source of information about Passenger Pigeons remains Bill Schorger’s encyclopedic account of the history of this species in the 1955 book, the Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. Of course, there are other excellent resources including the Birds of North America account, the recently published A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction by Joel Greenberg, and the Game Commission’s own website and PA Game News (see below for resources). More details of Schorger’s records have now been made available by Dr. Stan Temple of the University of Wisconsin – Madison on the Project Passenger Pigeon website. There are many accounts of Passenger Pigeons in the state including the first known poem written by a Pennsylvanian in the 1700’s that was about the “pidgeons” seen by John Holme.

The Pidgeons in such numbers we see fly
That like a cloud they do make dark the sky;
And in such multitudes are sometimes found,
As that they cover both trees and ground:
He that advances near with one good shot
May kill enough to fill both spit and pot.
John Holme, undated (from the Passenger Pigeon Project website)

Pennsylvania’s landscape bears the mark of the “pidgeons” with many place names commemorating the vast flocks of birds. Widely dispersed locations from Philadelphia to the wilds of Forest County were named in some way for Passenger Pigeons. The name “Moyamensing” in west Philadelphia was an native American word for pigeon droppings. There are Pigeon Creeks in Chester, Sullivan, and Washington counties. Pigeon Hollow is a geographic term used in Cameron, Lycoming, and McKean counties.   From direct records of pigeons, we know that they were reported in at least 39 counties. The place names given strongly imply that “Wild Pigeons” were also present in another five counties, bringing the total number of counties known to have had Passenger Pigeons to 44. With their nomadic habits and preference for mature trees, Passenger Pigeons probably occurred in almost all Pennsylvania counties at one time since European settlement.  

Pennsylvania is the site of one of the only three monuments erected to commemorate the Passenger Pigeon. In 1947, this monument was placed “in the interest of the preservation of wildlife” near Hanover by the Boy Scouts of America. The monument, located at Codorus State Park overlooking Lake Marburg, was later replaced after suffering vandalism. The area was then known as the “Pigeon Hills.” This is appropriate since there are so many accounts of the huge flocks of “pidgeons” in the state especially the forested counties of “Penn’s Woods.” There transcribed is the following statement: “In the interest of the preservation of wild life, We here dedicate this memorial to the ill-fated Passenger Pigeon which from the earliest pioneer days until the 1880’s flocked to these Pigeon Hills. This migratory bird, now extinct was once so plentiful it’s numbers darkened the skies.”

Pigeon Shoot Historic Illustration from "The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, July 3, 1875

Pigeon Shoot Historic Illustration from “The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, July 3, 1875

The loss of the Passenger Pigeon from the North American landscape is one of the most profound and devastating human impacts on wildlife in modern history. Between subsistence and market hunters, this species was killed by the tens of thousands each year. At first, people took advantage of the abundant food source to provide meat for their family’s table. As market hunting grew as a profession, more Passenger Pigeons and other game were killed literally by the train car-load. As the country’s communication and transportation systems grew in size and efficiency, the word spread about pigeon roosts and the reaction speed to a harvest opportunity grew substantially. Many skills were learned for baiting pigeons and catching them. With advances in firearms, pigeons were killed en masse when they were flying in flocks. When a colony was found, it was soon attacked and devastated by “pigeoners” who caught adults flying near nests and captured the young pigeons called “squabs” as preferred table offering.

Declines in the state’s Passenger Pigeon numbers were noted by the mid-nineteenth century and continued into the 1880’s. The last known active professional “pigeoners” were plying their trade as late as 1878. This completely unregulated harvest across the range of the species caused a deep spiraling decline that it could not recover from despite its large numbers. Its own gregarious habits may have worked against it, because Passenger Pigeons were not as efficient foraging or effective nesting in smaller bands of birds. Many of the last wild Passenger Pigeons were killed for the sake of a private collection. The great Pennsylvania ornithologist, Clyde Todd sought reports of Passenger Pigeons since they were already uncommonly reported in the 1890’s. He wrote of one report of a flock of approximately 100 seen in McKean County in September 1905, but stated that “no reputable ornithologist has seen a Passenger Pigeon in this county since 1907.” Todd wondered that will the loss of Passenger Pigeon, would the “wildfowl” and birds of prey go, too? Such was the lack of faith in the institutions charged with management of wildlife at the time.

Efforts on the part of conservationists and regulators were too little and too late for this migratory bird. The “hunter-conservationist” was a rare bird then, so those that saw the need to put the brakes on the pigeon-killing free-for-all were drowned out in the conversation about ‘wild pigeons.” Species that move from one state to another need regulatory protection wherever they go. The efforts of gentlemen like Henry Roney and William Butts Mershon to halt the madness of eradication fell short. The country was not ready for that kind of approach to management and regulation in the late nineteenth century. Even if there was a halt put to the slaughter of pigeons, the huge habitat loss of mature forest may have doomed this nomadic, colonial, mast-eating bird. The last reports of this species in the state were in 1906. The last Passenger Pigeon named Martha died in captivity eight years later. The formation of wildlife agencies, conservation groups, and regulations are a direct result of the loss of the Passenger Pigeon.

There are many lessons to be learned from Martha’s death. One of them is that we must remain eternally vigilant about managing wildlife since even a common species could become extinct without proper attention. This also means monitoring — counting birds and where they live — as part of the equation. Cooperation between states and countries also is vital to good management of migratory animals. Just one missing link in the chain can cause a species loss.

 For more details about the natural history and extinction of Passenger Pigeon, please check the resources listed below. There are more details about the Pennsylvania story in Joe Kosack’s articles on the PGC website and in PA Game News.

 For some origami fun that teaches a valuable lesson about birds, visit the “Fold the Flock” website at: http://foldtheflock.org/

Resources:

Blockstein, D. E. 2002. Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), in The Birds of North America, No. 611 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Ind.,Philadelphia, PA. http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/611/articles/introduction

 Bucher, E. H. 1992. The causes of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Pp. 1 – 35 in Current Ornithology. Vol. 9 (D. M. Power, ed.). Plenum Press, New York.

 Burtt, E. H. Jr. and W. E. Davis, Jr. 2013. Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and London, England.

Cokinos, C. 2000. Hope is the Thing with Feathers. A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. Warner Books. 354 pp.

French, J. C. 1919. The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania: Its Remarkable History, Habits and Extinction. Altoona Tribune Company, Altoona, PA.

Greenberg, J. 2014. A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Bloomsbury, New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney.

Greenberg, J. 2014. The Last Great Nesting: Petroskey and Two Remarkable Men. Birding 46: 34 – 43. [Note this article features art by Pennsylvanian Kate Garchinsky.]

Kosack, J. 2010. Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, page on the PA Game Commission website: http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt?open=514&objID=621014&mode=2

Kosack, J. 2014. It’s Still Hard to Believe. Pennsylvania Game News: August 2014, pages 2 – 7.

Leopold, A. 1947. “On a monument to the pigeon,” pp. 3-5 in Silent Wings: A Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon (W.E. Scott, ed.). Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, Madison, WI. (or as a chapter in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, 1949,Oxford University Press, London and New York.).

McWilliams, G. M. and D. W. Brauning. 2000. The Birds of Pennsylvania. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Mershon, W.B. 1907. The Passenger Pigeon. Outing Publishing Company, New York, NY.

Project Passenger Pigeon website: Lessons from the Past for a Sustainable Future. http://passengerpigeon.org/ [Includes historical accounts from Schorger’s original field notes about Passenger Pigeons in Pennsylvania and other states.]

Schorger, A.W. 1955. The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI. xiii + 424 pp.

Todd, W.E.C. 1940. Birds of Western Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh PA.

Warren, B. H. 1890. Report on the Birds of Pennsylvania. 2nd Ed., Revised and augmented. E. K. Meyers, Harrisburg, PA.

Wilson, A. 1812. American ornithology 5: 102 – 112. Bradford and Inskeep, Philadelphia.

Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. 1947. Silent Wings: A Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon. (W.E. Scott, Ed.). Madison, WI.

Story by Doug Gross, PA Game Commission.

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