A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction
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When Europeans arrived in North America, 25 to 40 percent of the continent's birds were passenger pigeons, traveling in flocks so massive as to block out the sun for hours or even days. The downbeats of their wings would chill the air beneath and create a thundering roar that would drown out all other sound. John James Audubon, impressed by their speed and agility, said a lone passenger pigeon streaking through the forest "passes like a thought." How prophetic―for although a billion pigeons crossed the skies 80 miles from Toronto in May of 1860, little more than fifty years later passenger pigeons were extinct. The last of the species, Martha, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
As naturalist Joel Greenberg relates in gripping detail, the pigeons' propensity to nest, roost, and fly together in vast numbers made them vulnerable to unremitting market and recreational hunting. The spread of railroads and telegraph lines created national demand that allowed the birds to be pursued relentlessly. Passenger pigeons inspired awe in the likes of Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and others, but no serious effort was made to protect the species until it was too late. Greenberg's beautifully written story of the passenger pigeon paints a vivid picture of the passenger pigeon's place in literature, art, and the hearts and minds of those who witnessed this epic bird, while providing a cautionary tale of what happens when species and natural resources are not harvested sustainably.
Garrie Landry) This photo of Albert Cooper and his three live passenger pigeon decoys from around 1870 appears in Henry Paxson’s 1917 article on the species in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. It is one of only two known photos of live passenger pigeons that do not involve the flocks kept by Whitman or the Cincinnati Zoo. (From the collection of Garrie Landry) Buttons, the second most famous stuffed passenger pigeon, is a young female collected March 24, 1900, at Sargents, Pike County, Ohio.
their necks, their bills pointing outwards; they were plucked but of pen feathers plenty remained; the inside was taken out, but it appeared from the soup made of them, that water had not touched them before. The repast being the best I had seen for a long time, I ate of it very heartily, and the entertainment was given with the appearance of much hospitality. The hordes of both people and pigeons created the perfect venue for the top archers of each group to strut their stuff. They used bows
dealers. In three nights of shooting, they bagged and sold 3,630 pigeons. Bennett stayed all the way until February. Then it was back to Pennsylvania for the spring flight: “That season there was carload after carload shipped from Kane and Sheffield to the northern market.” A few years later he finally called it quits, “leaving the forests of Potter County, on the Coudersport Pike, May 29, 1882.” There just weren’t enough birds to make it worth his while anymore, although he did get a card in
pigeons. Another of their matches held in Syracuse in 1877 used twenty thousand. And then there was the contest put on as part of the Sportsmen’s Association annual meeting in June 1881. It took place on Coney Island and involved twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand birds.23 The shoots in New York also provoked the first organized and effective attempts to stop the slaughter of passenger pigeons. It was not based on fear that the birds would become extinct, but rather on the cruelty of the
Association’s annual shooting meet. But he lamented that the business would be much less profitable than usual due to the 110 miles and rough terrain that separated the roost from the closest railroad station: “At one time I had fifteen wagons on the road. There are several streams to be forded and the Arbuckle Mountains have to be crossed … It took a wagon three days to make the trip.” Lest any of his readers be concerned, Thomas ends his comments with comforting news: “Pigeons nest four times