Legendary among ornithologists and lay people alike as a symbol of staggering abundance on the one hand and of human greed and indifference on the other, the Passenger Pigeon is arguably North America’s best known extinct species. Historical accounts of its huge flocks appear beyond belief were they not so consistent among independent observers for over three centuries.
It is reported they darkened the sky for hours or even days at a time. The beats of their wings would create drafts that chilled the people over whom they flew.
“But the most remarkable characteristic of these birds is their associating together, both in their migrations, and also during the period of incubation, in such prodigious numbers, as almost to surpass belief; and which has no parallel among any of the other feathered tribes on earth, with which naturalists are acquainted” (Wilson 1812: 102–103).
Once the most abundant land bird in North America
It is estimated that the Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant land bird in North America, comprising an estimated 3 billion to 5 billion individuals, perhaps a quarter of the continent’s avifauna (Schorger 1955). The species occurred only in North America, primarily east of the Rocky Mountains, and bred almost exclusively in the eastern deciduous forest. Despite its vast flocks, this pigeon was extinct in the wild by the end of the nineteenth century. Its last representative, the fabled Martha, died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo.
No match for 19th century technology
The key to the Passenger Pigeon's abundance was its nomadic flocking behavior, which allowed it to exploit seasonally superabundant crops of mast and acorns that were unpredictable in space and time. Passenger pigeons nested singly and in groups of all sizes, but the larger part of the population nested in huge colonies. Aggregating in such immense numbers allowed the species to satiate any potential predators, until they attracted the ultimate predator—humans armed with nineteenth-century technology.
From billions to none in 40 years
The dramatic decline to extinction in the wild occurred over a period of only 40 years. The birds were subjected to unrelenting exploitation as an item of commerce and sport, with human disruption of essentially every nesting colony. During this period, there were no documented uninterrupted and completely successful mass nestings, which were necessary to sustain the population.
Read the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's monograph of the Passenger Pigeon.
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