Project Passenger Pigeon

Lessons from the Past for a Sustainable Future

WIphotoThis portrait of Arlie W. Schorger, the twentieth century’s premier passenger pigeon historian, hangs in the Dept. of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

WI-MarkerThe state historical marker in Black River Falls marking the great 1871 passenger pigeon nesting that spread across 850 square miles of central Wisconsin.

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Passenger Pigeons in Your State, Province or Territory


(Compiled by Kyle Bagnall and edited by Joel Greenberg)

Passenger pigeons once nested in enormous numbers throughout Wisconsin and vast flocks coursed overhead during migration. Many written reports exist of nesting areas, roosts, and huge flocks flying throughout the State. The most complete descriptions are those of the largest recorded nesting of Passenger Pigeons in U.S. history, which occurred in central Wisconsin in 1871.

Last Records of the Passenger Pigeon:
An immature male was shot on September 8, 1896 by C.E. Golder, near Delavan Lake in Walworth County. The specimen was later sent to the Denver Museum of Natural History. Several small flocks were reported in Winnebago County, at Oshkosh, in the fall of 1897. The last confirmed wild Passenger Pigeon in Wisconsin was shot by James Varney between September 9-15, 1899 near Babcock, Wood County. In his column “Chicago and the West,” published in the September 23, 1899 issue of Forest and Stream, Emerson Hough wrote that the bird was mixed with a flock of Mourning Doves sitting in a tree and was shot by men hunting Prairie Chickens. It was recognized as a young Passenger Pigeon by Neal Brown, a member of the party.

Places Likely Named for Passenger Pigeon:
There are no fewer than 17 places in Wisconsin with pigeon in the name:

Pigeon Creek (Grant County)

Pigeon Creek (Washington County)

Pigeon Grove (Columbia County)

Pigeon Falls (Trempealeau County)

Pigeon Creek (Jackson County)

Pigeon Creek (Ozaukee County)

Pigeon Creek (Rusk County)

Pigeon Island (LaCrosse County)

Pigeon Lake (Bayfield County)

Pigeon Lake ( Manitowoc County)

Pigeon Lake (Waupaca County)

Pigeon River (Manitowoc County)

Pigeon River — North Branch (Shawano County)

Pigeon River — South Branch (Waupaca County)

Pigeon Run [Stream] (Crawford County)

Meeme [Pigeon] River (Manitowoc County)

Meeme [Village and Township] (Manitowoc County)

Wisconsin Highlights:
Natural Bridge State Park, south of Baraboo, comprises 530 acres of oak woodlands, dry prairie, open fields, and a natural sandstone arch serving as its focal point. This out of the way park features one of the oldest inhabited sites known from the Midwest. The wind and water-carved sandstone arch us 25 feet wide and 15 feet high with the top towering 35 feet above ground level. The Raddatz rock shelter at the base of the natural arc is 60 feet wide with a depth of 30 feet and is believed to have been inhabited by Paleo-Indians approximately 11,000 years ago when a glacier occupied nearby territory. Evidence indicates that the shelter was used only periodically at first, perhaps as a hunting or seasonal camp. Later it was inhabited year-round. Passenger pigeon bones have been uncovered here.

 “Just as our commander ceased his speech, a bird well worthy to be sweet Peace's chosen emblem, with an arrow's speed, flew over us and alighted, not in a lovely lady's bosom, but on one of the iron rods extended between the smoke pipes, above the hurricane deck, to strengthen them. Was it a snow white dove? That is but a poet's phrase for a tame pigeon – a lumpish ungraceful bird that is much given to domestic bickerings despite its reputation. It was something far prettier – a blue, free, fleet wild pigeon – a thing like Cora, untameable [sic.], and given to wild flights, but of a truly gentle disposition. It had somehow been separated from its fellows, and in crossing the lake since sunrise, even its strong pinions began to flag and so it stopped to rest. John Smith tells me, that birds are frequently found dead far out upon this lake – and that even the passenger pigeon, whose speed exceeds thirty miles the hour, and which often flies a hundred miles to breakfast, sometimes falls exhausted into it and perishes upon its bosom and so becomes a prey for the gigantic trout. This does not often happen – and only when this strong-winged bird is baffled by opposing winds, beaten down by tempests, or lost in murky fogs. Our pigeon was warmly welcomed. We hailed its coming as a good omen: and then, the place it occupied between the pipes was very hot, as was proved by its drooping wings and open bill; but still, so fatigued was the poor wanderer, it would not stir although an editor, pitying its sufferings, would have knocked it with a fishing rod had not Smith interposed…. But our visitor remained admired and unscathed for half an hour, until we neared the shore, and then launched into the air and sought the pleasant green-wood shade.” A traveler writing of his Lake Michigan journey near Green Bay in July, 1847. It appeared in the Western Literary Messenger and provides a rare early case of human kindness toward the species.

The largest recorded nesting of Passenger Pigeons in U.S. history took place in central Wisconsin in 1871. A conservative estimate of the nesting area was 850 square miles, and population estimates put the number of nesting pigeons at 136 million. Many recorded descriptions of this nesting exist in historic articles, books and other publications. One is by Chief Pokagon (of the Pottawatomie) whose descriptions of passenger pigeons are among the best ever penned: ‘Every tree, some of them quite low and scrubby, had from one to fifty nests each. Some of the nests overflow from the oaks to the hemlocks and pine woods. When the pigeon hunters attack the breeding places they sometimes cut the timber from thousands of acres. . . I there counted as high as forty nests in scrub oaks not over twenty-five feet high; in many places I could pick the eggs out of the nests, being not over five or six feet from the ground.”
“We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin. Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know. . .

The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.” Aldo Leopold, speaking at the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology’s dedication of a monument to the passenger pigeon on May 11, 1947, Wyalusing State Park.

The twentieth century’s premier passenger pigeon historian was Arlie W. Schorger whose 1955 book, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction (first edition of which was published by the U of Wisconsin Press), is an amazing work that tells of the species in meticulous detail. Living in Madison, Schorger spent decades reading every newspaper published in WI before a certain year in his singular effort to document the changing status of the state’s wildlife. The accounts he collected through that project formed the core of the passenger pigeon book but he augmented it with thousands of other works and estimated that all told he used in excess of 10,000 sources. Schorger was both a close friend of Leopold’s and a colleague in the Department of Wildlife Ecology (now the Department of Wildlife and Forest Ecology) at the University of Wisconsin. The department houses memorials to both scholars.

A monument to the last known passenger pigeon in the state exists at Wyalusing State Park near Bagley and the 1871 nesting is commemorated by a historical marker at Black River Falls.

Bud Gussel, of Wisconsin Dells, has a goal to provide a free passenger pigeon poster to every school district in Wisconsin. Since 2008, he has distributed more than 600 to schools and libraries across the state:

Wisconsin Locations Known to Have Passenger Pigeon Skins, Mounts, and or Skeletons:

Bagely: *Wyalusing State Park

Baraboo: *Baraboo High School

Beloit: Beloit College

Cable: *Cable Natural History Museum

Eau Claire: *University of Wisconsin, James Newman Clark Bird Museum

Fond du Lac: Fond du Lac Historical Society (will be on display come 2014 if not before)

Fort Atkinson: *Hoard Historical Museum

Green Bay: 1. *Neville Public Museum; and 2) Richter Museum of Natural History

La Crosse: University of Wisconsin

Madison: 1) *Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin;

Milwaukee: 1) *Milwaukee Public Museum; 2) University of Wisconsin; 3) *Concordia University

New London: *New London Public Museum

Oshkosh: *Oshkosh Public Museum

Plattsville: University of Wisconsin (?)

Potosi: Potosi High School (?)

Racine: *Racine Heritage Museum

Stevens Point: *University of Wisconsin's Museum of Natural History

Whitewater: University of Wisconsin (?)

* If an asterisk appears, at least one passenger pigeon is known to be on display; this list is mainly based on Hahn's Where is That Vanished Bird (1963). Please let us know of any changes including additional locations and/or birds on display, name changes of institution, if birds are no longer present, etc.

Read Fascinating Historical Accounts of the Passenger Pigeon in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s A.W. [Bill] Schorger (1884-1972) spent many years researching the history of the Passenger Pigeon, and he summarized his findings in his 1955 book, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. At the time of its publication, the book was the most comprehensive account of the species. Schorger did an excellent job summarizing the nearly 10,000 historical records he discovered in libraries and historical societies around the country, but his original research notes contain many additional details.
For the 2014 centennial, Professor Stanley Temple of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has made all Schorger’s handwritten research notes available in digital form. This link will take you to a table that provides details of all the historical records Bill Schorger discovered for Wisconsin. [Schorger-WI.pdf]

Read Historical Accounts from Shorger's Original Field Notes about the Passenger Pigeon in Wisconsin

These sources are newly available on the Passenger Pigeon site (as of January 25, 2014). The links below give access to often-firsthand, eyewitness accounts of pigeons, the table includes a cross reference to the exact page in Schorger’s notes where you can read the full text of the account and find a citation of the original source document. All these historical documents are in PDF format in sizes ranging from 24mb - 60mb. These documents will open in their own window. Use the links below to find the page containing the account you’re interested in exploring further:
Schorger pages 1-329
Schorger pages 330-632
Schorger pages 633-959
Schorger pages 960-1242
Schorger pages 1243-1585
Schorger pages 1586-1890
Schorger pages 1891-2232
Schorger pages 2233-2556


Your text contributions on passenger pigeons in the U.S. or Canada are welcome. Email your text notes to us. Include: first and last name, and the State or Province you reference in the Subject Line.

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