September 1 marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger v, a bird species that was once in the billions. The last bird, Martha, died after living captive for many years at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens.
Flocks of Passenger Pigeons often darkened the sky for hours as they flew overhead. From the 1600s through the 1800s, their range extended from the New England states to the Central Plains and from the Southern states into Canada. Their scientific name, Ectopistes migratorius, means “wanderer,” and refers to the birds’ migrations to feeding areas in large forests and their affinity to remain together while nesting.
Native Americans and pioneers hunted the spring Passenger Pigeon flocks after their barely surviving the harsh winters. The birds’ fat tasted like butter, and their feathers filled pillows and beds. After the Civil War, the telegraph and railroads provided the technology to develop an industry of professional hunters who followed the flocks.
These “pigeoners” believed the supply of birds was inexhaustible. Large nets on tall poles were placed over man-made salt licks. Hunters pulled a rope to catch 60 to 90 dozen birds per day, per net. Trees held five to 50 nests each, making it easy to harvest large numbers of pigeons. Tethered live birds, or “stool pigeons,” were used as decoys to lure flocks in for a kill. Branches were cut to catch the young birds, called squabs, because they sold for a higher price than the adult birds.
In 1869, Michigan passed a law against hunting the birds on their nesting grounds, but it was never enforced. Michigan’s largest nesting colony was noted in March 1878 near Petoskey, where the birds covered at least 150,000 acres. Four men from game protection clubs in Saginaw and Bay City traveled to Petoskey in an attempt to stop the hundreds of pigeoners who came from 13 states, but they could not stop the slaughter. Wagons transported birds to freight houses where they were packed in salt, then shipped by railroad to restaurants in big cities such as Chicago.
Forests were logged to create farmland and to provide lumber for cities, impacting the pigeons’ habitats. Trap shooting of captured live birds released from cages during sporting contests also contributed to the pigeons’ steady decline. By the end of 1901, wild Passenger Pigeons were nothing but a memory.
Sticking together. Alexander Wilson, an ornithologist in the early 1800s, wrote, “The most remarkable characteristic of these birds (Passenger Pigeons) is their associating together, both in their migrations, and also during the period of incubation, in such prodigious numbers as almost to surpass belief.” Wilson was the first scientist to estimate a flock near Frankfort, Kentucky, as containing two billion birds.
Protecting wildlife. Wild pigeon populations were gone when a Saginaw native, William B. Mershon, compiled and printed the first history of the Passenger Pigeon in his 1907 book, The Passenger Pigeon. Mershon, inspired by his boyhood experiences and love for the outdoors, actively supported the attempt to halt the Petoskey slaughter, criticized the public for failing to act, and pushed for new laws to save other declining species.
Saving the birds. In 1918, four years after Passenger Pigeons became extinct, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act finally protected migratory birds in the United States and Canada. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 currently protects wildlife populations before they become extinct. It prohibits the taking and possession of listed species, establishes recovery programs, and acquires land for habitat of the protected species.
Teaching others. This year, participants of Project Passenger Pigeon have shared the story of this species throughout the country using programs and exhibits. Kyle Bagnall, manager of historical programs at Chippewa Nature Center, as project coordinator in Michigan, has been presenting a dynamic program using his own research.