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Today is 99th anniversary of passenger pigeon extinction

Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions in North America. The last of the species died in Cincinnati on Sept. 1, 1914.
Courtesy Wikimedia

In Europe, the drums of war had started, while here in the United States, the Senate was amidst a debate over a far-reaching law that would limit the economic power of robber baron industrialists. Events in Cincinnati, Ohio on Sept. 1, 1914 were not foremost in the human conscience.

It was on that day that Martha, a passenger pigeon, died in that city's zoo.

She was the last of her species. Amazingly, Ectopistses migratorius had once been the most common bird in the country, numbering in the billions.

John James Audubon, the man who opened America's collective mind to avian diversity, described a flock of passenger pigeons he encountered during a trip to Louisville in 1813. He heard "the continued buzz of wings," saw a sky "literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse." Later, having traveled some 55 miles, the same flock was still overhead. It continued to fly "for three days in succession."

His account of the ubiquitous bird was not the only one to evoke its enormous numbers.

Clive Ponting's book, The Green History of the World, evoked the enormity of the flocks thus:

One of the first settlers in Virginia wrote that, `There are wild pigeons in winter beyond number or imagination, myself have seen three or four hours together flocks in the air, so thick that even have they shadowed the sky from us.' Similar reports can be found from the Dutch on Manhattan Island in 1625, from Salem in Massachusetts in 1631 and some of the first explorers in Louisiana in 1698.

As late as 1854 in Wayne County, New York, a local resident wrote that. `There would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another.' On 8 April 1873 at Saginaw in Michigan there was a continuous stream of passenger pigeons overhead between 7.30 in the morning and 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Other reports describe flocks a mile wide flying overhead for four or five hours at a time during their migration in the early spring from the south to their breeding areas in New England, New York, Ohio and the southern Great Lakes area.

Perhaps it was that very abundance that prompted the slaughter. By the millions and millions humans killed the passenger pigeon.

The December 8, 1975 edition of Sports Illustrated included this anecdote:

At Woodstock, Ontario, about 1870, Dr. A.B. Welford found himself well placed under the path of a huge flock of passenger pigeons. He started shooting early in the morning, using a double-barreled muzzle-loader. By 10 a.m. he had run out of ammunition after killing more than 400 birds. The pigeons continued to stream low over a fence behind which the doctor was hiding, so he grabbed a long rail, held it aloft and found he could easily bring down more birds. The doctor was proud of his exploit, and since the supply of game seemed inexhaustible—the flight lasted for several days—he allowed his experiences to appear in The Ibis, a magazine for bird lovers.

It wasn't just individuals out for a day of sport, either. The profit motive had much to do with the decimation of the passenger pigeon. Commercial hunting companies hunted them in huge, even incomprehensible, numbers.

As Ponting wrote:

The scale of the operation can be judged by figures that seem almost incredible but which were carefully recorded as part of a perfectly legal and highly profitable commerce. On just one day in 1860 (23 July) 235,200 birds were sent east from Grand Rapids in Michigan. During 1874 Oceana County in Michigan sent over 1,000,000 birds to the markets in the east and two years later was sending 400,000 a week at the height of the season and a total of 1,600,000 in the year. In 1869, Van Buren County, also in Michigan, sent 7,500,000 birds to the east. Even in 1880, when numbers had already been severely reduced, 527,000 birds were shipped east from Michigan.

Of course, hunting wasn't the only bane of the species. Passenger pigeons ate the nuts of trees, including the chestnut, that were routinely cut down in nineteenth century America. Females bore only one egg at a time, which made it impossible for the species to keep up with the carnage inflicted on it humanity.

The last individual in the wild was observed in 1900.

The demise of the species was a wake-up call to a nation and to the world. It shouldn't have been. There had been warnings, even efforts to legislate the conservation of the passenger pigeon. They failed.

"We did our best to exterminate both old and young,and we succeeded," wrote Edward Howe Forbush, an ornithologist and author, in 1917. "The explanation is so simple that all talk of 'mystery' seems sadly out of place here."

On this anniversary of the day in which we killed off a species once so common it darkened the skies, let us consider whether we have learned anything.

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