Life of birds For the love, understanding and protection of birds. More »

Was Martha the last “Pigean de passage”?


A flock of Passenger Pigeons lingered in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo for the first years of the 1900s. The last remaining bird died at the age of 29, on September 1, 1914. Her name was Martha (named after Martha Washington), and she was the last individual of one of the most abundant bird species on the entire planet!

These wild pigeons once inhabited North America by the billions. Yet in three centuries they were exterminated by civilized man

When the first European settlers arrived at St. Augustine,Florida in 1565, it is believed that between 3 and 6 billion Passenger Pigeons darkened the skies over eastern North America. This is were I live, in the southern 2/3rds of Wisconsin. Reportedly where the largest nesting colony ever described covered 850 square miles. Can you imagine that? That’s almost twice the size of the city of Los Angeles! Incidentally, the number of birds nesting there was estimated at 136,000,000 by 1871. Now that’s what we call a “pigeon city”. It is highly unlikely we will see a passenger pigeon living again - but i live in hope. Should a passenger pigeon fly out of a history book and into a sky near you, here’s what to look out for.

So, what was a passenger pigeon?

ppm.jpg The Passenger Pigeon looked similar to the familiar Mourning Dove, but was about six inches longer, and colored differently (a comparison is available here). The passenger pigeons or ‘wild pigeon’ belongs to the order Columbiformes. The physical appearance of the bird was commensurate with its flight characteristics of grace, speed, and maneuverability. The head and neck were small; the tail long and wedge-shaped, and the wings, long and pointed, were powered by large breast muscles that gave the-capability for prolonged speedy flight. The average length of the male was about 16½ inches. Males (pictured right) had pale blue heads, black bills, red/orange eyes, irridescent copper, green, and purple on kneck.The Female_Passenger_pigeon female was about an inch shorter with duller and paler colours. Her head and back were a brownish gray, the iridescent patches of the throat and back of the neck were less bright, and the breast was a pale cinnamon-rose color (pictured left). The birds cooed somewhat in the manner of a domestic pigeon - with less wavering and much loader. On the wing they sometimes tweeted and screached, not unlike the cries of a hawk as thoreau noted. Passenger Pigeons were found in deciduous forests and bred primarily in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Its prime food source were the ample acorns, chestnuts, beech nuts, hickory nuts, elm fruits,wild cherries that littered the forest floor.

Its scientific name is Ectopistes migratorius, gives us some clues into its behavioral patterns: Ecto is from the Latin for “outside”, piste is from Italian for “trail.” Ectopistes might be translated as “wanderer” or one who goes off the trail. Migratorius is from the Latin migrare, meaning “to change location periodically.” The scientific name carries the connotation of a bird that not only migrates in the spring and fall, but one that also moves about from season to season to select the most favorable environment for nesting and feeding. Thus, the bird is very descriptively named the “migratory wanderer”. Incidentally, the common name was originally in French, “Pigean de passage” or “pigeon of passage” because of the astounding size of the migratory flocks passing overhead. The migratory flights of the passenger pigeon were spectacular. The birds flew at an estimated speed of around 60-70 miles an hour. Observers reported the sky was darkened by huge flocks that passed overhead. These flights often continued from morning until night and lasted for several days. The naturalist John James Audubon wrote this account of the passing of a flock of what he later estimated to be more than 1 billion pigeons in the Fall of 1813:

As I traveled on, the air was literally filled with pigeons. The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses”.

It was characteristic of the passenger pigeon “to fly” and nest en masse. This made it unique in the world not only because of the vast numbers, but also because of the manner in which they roosted, nested, flocked, and migrated. Within a nesting area, nearly every tree held nests, and sometimes scores of nests were built in a single tree. (A score is a group of 20) In fact, when roosting or nesting, birds packed extremely densely, to the extent that observers often reported pigeons piled atop one another. In roosts, the number of birds that tried to land on a branch was often so great that even thick branches broke beneath their combined weight.

Without question the passenger pigeon’s technique of survival had been based on mass tactics. There had been safety in its large flocks which often numbered hundreds of thousands of birds. When a flock of this size established itself in an area, the number of local animal predators (such as wolves, foxes, weasels, and hawks) was so small compared to the total number of birds that little damage could be inflicted on the flock as a whole. The passenger pigeons could not adapt themselves to existing in small flocks. When their interests clashed with the interests of man, civilization prevailed.

The rapid demise

The story of the Passenger Pigeon is an instructive cautionary tale. It chronicles the expansion of a new nation, the passenger_pigeon_hunting “shot-gun” culture, the unbounded vision of the Victorian Age, and of course, the conquering of the American wilderness. But sadly, it mostly details the thoughtlessness and ignorance with which our ancestors exhausted a seemingly limitless resource of flesh and feathers, brings to mind the worlds current consumption of fossil fuels. The simple fact remains we use petroleum like it will last forever, do we not?

The species became extinct within a span of 50 years, several factors having led to this. Initially, the passenger pigeon was considered an agricultural pest, thus providing ample reason to kill vast numbers of the birds. (Needless to say their slaughter was officially supported by local, state, and federal governments). It was also in demand as food, largely due to the fact that nesting flocks were easily accessible. Their feathers stuffed pillows and mattresses and were used for decoration and fashion. And of course the pigeons were shot for “sport”, both in the wild and in carnival booths where the docile birds proved easy targets - a common practice for the “trigger happy” was to use the live pigeons as targets in shooting galleries. How perverse is that? Let us look at the timeline

Passenger pigeon timeline

  • 1800 estimated at 2.2 billion birds over kentucky alone.
  • 1813 - flock estimated at 1.1 billion birds over kentucky.1840s - rail and telegraph.1865 - eastern rail road complete every colony within 1 day buggy drive.
  • 1830s - slow decline.
  • 1866 - flock estimated at 3.7 billion over Ontario.1869 - Van buren county alone sent 7.5 million birds to markets in the east.
  • 1870s - Start of the catastrophic decline.
  • 1878 - In the summer of 1878, the last huge breeding colony of Pigeons arrived near Crooked Lake in Petosky, Michigan. The flock covered 40 square miles and for three months yielded over 50,000 birds a day to hunters. One hunter reportedly killed 3,000,000 of the birds and according to one account earned $60,000–more than $1 million in today’s dollars.Records estimate between 10-15 million slaughtered.The passenger was never seen in the state after 1889.
  • 1888 - last large flocks reported. Population likely beyond point of recovery.
  • 1890s - Vast flocks vanished

  • 1896 - the last remaining flock of Passenger Pigeons settled down to nest. All 250,000 were exterminated in one day by sportsmen who gathered to kill what was advertised as the last wild flock of the birds.
  • 1900 - (spring) last (authenticated)wild passenger pigeon shot by a 14-year-old boy in Ohio state.
  • 1914 - Last passenger pigeon died in captivity (martha)

Room for optimism?

female.jpgAll efforts at breeding in captivity failed. The Passenger Pigeon reproduced slowly, had odd mating habits that prevented crossbreeding, and were seemingly incapable of breeding within their species outside of large colonies. One by one, pigeons in captivity died without producing offspring. The one valuable result of the extinction of the passenger pigeon was that it aroused public interest in the need for strong conservation laws. Because these laws were put into effect, we have saved many other species of our migratory birds and wildlife. Needless to say, environmentalists and conservation groups all point to the passenger pigeon and its extinction as a benchmark, as a lesson in the perils of arrogance.The broader implication is that there are many other species that are seemingly abundant but may be just as fragile below a certain level. Optimistically, reports of a few in the wild apparently survived for a number of years. The ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush noted several more or less authenticated records of wild passenger pigeons in the early years of the twentieth century: 140-odd in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1902; one at Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1904; one on the Black River of Arkansas in 1906; one at St. Vincent, Quebec, on September 23, 1907. Sadly, all of these were killed, or were they…?

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


Posted by
6 January 2007 @ 8am

Nice post! keep up the good work..

Posted by
6 January 2007 @ 9am

Thanks Justin, It’s really nice to have encouragement, kind words! Stay tuned.. ;)

Posted by
9 January 2007 @ 3am

Fantastic discussion of a tragic extinction (as if there were any other kind.) The extirpation of such a populous species really is a shameful example of human shortsightedness and cruelty.

Welcome to the action-packed, adrenaline-fueled world of bird blogging! I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. Also, congratulations on such a good-looking blog. You clearly put a lot of thought into getting it right.

Posted by
9 January 2007 @ 9am

Mike, that’s the biggest compliment I could of hoped to receive. The 10000 blog is one of my all time must reads. Am delighted, you’ve made my day :D. Big thanks to you.

regarding post: am still trudging through ornithological records concerning the passenger pigeon - from billions of birds to zero “blows my mind”. There’s not one single “source” but many “sources” to account for the extinction. That said, the amount of cruelty around that time must of been horribly gruesome, to say the least.

Posted by
10 January 2007 @ 8am

Oh, my!
I hear my husband speak of this issue ALL the TIME!
How very very interesting to see it in print.

Posted by
10 January 2007 @ 10am

There are things to be done at all levels to conserve our natural environment, good awareness is an essential ingrediant to this. This means, in part, looking into histories to find answers. Indeed, you might find we’re a pathology on the planet. The Passenger pigeon in some respects “symbolizes” this.

BTW: sound’s like your husband’s an all concerning man. :) Thanks for passing by!

Posted by
20 June 2007 @ 7pm

Hello! Good Site! Thanks you!

Posted by
Tim Scammell
21 September 2007 @ 2pm

What a great job you have done here telling a horrible part of our shameful past. I first read about this many years ago pre-internet and gathered what I could from encyclopedias and books.
Oddly enough, my interest was renewed lately after watching Attenborough’s “Planet Earth”.
I was researching birds that flock in large numbers and out popped the Passenger Pigeon (Google is an amazing thing). That’s how I found your wonderful item here.
I have now spent the last 3 weeks printing and reading more than I ever thought I could know of this poor creature.
I scanned through all of the past issues of Auk magazine and one can see the decline clearly right down to the last 3, then 2 and then the passing of poor Martha.
I share your feelings of being unable to fathom how a species could be reduced from billions to zero in a century.
I applaud your optimism in the teeny hope that maybe there is still a couple somewhere. Maybe.
The problem would be how a few lost survivors could ever reproduce enough to increase the number at all.
One or 2 eggs at a time isn’t too many, is it?
But then again, at some period in time the numbers made their way up to billions. How many started that?
I will say one thing though David. I am watching the trees VERY closely now when I go for a walk in the woods.
Thanks for the great article.

Leave a Comment

Golden eagle and a fox altercate over lunch Woodpecker reappears after 80 years in hiding, now with full status