Return to the main Miscellaneous and archives page.

The Passenger Pigeon
A Vanished Race

Bird Lore March-April 1913;    Moritz Fischer

Passenger Pigeon

Editor's note.-The photographs of Passenger Pigeons appearing in this number of BIRD-LORE form a unique and important addition to our knowledge of the appearance in life of this beautiful and now lost species. They were made by Mr. J. G. Hub-bard, who generously contributes them to BIRD-LORE, at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1898, and represent birds in the aviary of Dr. C. 0. Whitman which are referred to in the succeeding articles. The birds were in perfect condition, and the photographs are believed to be adequate portraits of a species which, if we except the single individual still living in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, will never be photo-graphed again .-F. M. C.

A Vanished Specie

In the memorable year of grace 1534, Jaques Cartier of St. Malo, master pilot of Francis I, king of France, entered the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of a waterway to India for his royal patron. Coasting along the eastern shore of an extensive island, he one day landed to explore the country, and found that, to use his own words, the land was of the best temperature that it may be possible to see, and of great warmth, and that there were many Turtle Doves, Wood Pigeons, and other birds.
This casual reference to a few birds observed by the intrepid Breton near Cape Kildare on Prince Edward Island opens the marvelous and fragmentary story of a creature that ranged the unknown continent in flights of stupendous magnitude, and became known to later generations as the Passenger Pigeon.
When the great captains of the sixteenth century, of whom Cartier ranks as one of the first, discovered and explored the mainland of North America, and for more than two hundred years afterward, an unbroken forest of broad -leafed trees covered its eastern half. Fringed by evergreen wild woods to the north, its western border, much indented by spacious grasslands or prairies, spread its verdant tents northward to the Height of Land and beyond. In this mixed forest there flourished here and there, as soil and climate favored, and indeed compelled, woods composed entirely of one species, and holding their own by shading out all other kinds.Such were the beech and oak forests of the Ohio and Mississippi Valley, those of maple and chestnut east of the Appalachians, and the evergreen colonies, and belts of pine, hemlock, and allied species growing in the region of the Great Lakes and the basin of the St. Lawrence.
While most wild crops become available from the moment they are ripe, some plants, chiefly the shrubs, vines, and bushes cure their fruit and hold it for future delivery. The trees of mixed forests, on the other hand, with the exception of the hemlock, seed in alternate seasons, a beech-nut year following an acorn year in regular order. At all times, therefore, and in every part of its immense territory, did the forest provide enormous stores of provender readily accessible and perpetually renewed.
In this land of plenty, one of the host of creatures fed by the bounty of the forest primeval, lived the Passenger Pigeon, which, by the migration, of its countless flocks and its striking habits, deeply stirred the sluggish curiosity of the first settlers. To their random notes and the later and more ample reports of our earlier travelers and naturalists we are indebted for most of the knowledge we possess of this best known and famed member of our avian fauna.
The habitat of the Pigeon, embracing as it did the vast native forest of eastern North America, offered the bird a choice of food and residence, definite regions thereof being occupied in proper season and in regular rotation. Even the fruits of the lowly herbs contributed to its bill of fare, and the handsome poke-weed is locally known as 'Pigeon' berry at the present day. But the bulk of its food consisted of the acorns of the numerous species of oak, the seeds of beech, chestnut, maple, elm, and other hardwoods, of pine and hem-lock, and of the fruits and berries of bushes and shrubs. Angle worms, snails, caterpillars, and soft-bodied insects, such as grasshoppers, helped to vary the vegetarian diet. From the frequent mineral springs and licks the bird gratified its craving for salt, a condiment eagerly sought by all grain feeders.
The winter range of the bird comprised the territory south of Mason and Dixon's line, a land well stocked with its chief food supply during the inclement seasons. In one of these natural granaries the flocks would settle down and forage until the mast within a radius of two hundred miles and over had been consumed. While feeding in concert, the rear ranks successively rose and, passing over the whole flock, alighted in front, giving every bird an equal chance. Like an enormous wheel in slow motion, the birds moved through the wood and rapidly gathered its plenteous stores; toward night the swarms would return to the roost.

600 million - All Gone

The following description of such a locality is given by Faux, an English traveler who, about 1819, visited one of them in Tennessee. "The roost extends over a portion of woodland or barrens from four to six miles in circumference . . . The birds roost on the high forest trees, which they cover in the same manner as bees in swarms cover a bush, being piled one on the other from the lower to the topmost boughs which, so laden, are continually bending and falling with their crushing weight, and presenting a scene of confusion and destruction too strange to describe, and too dangerous to be approached by either man or beast. While the living birds are gone to their distant dinner, it is common for man and animals to gather up or devour the dead, thus found in cartloads."
Scattered in huge flocks throughout the hospitable south during autumn and winter, at the advent of spring the birds assembled in several stupendous hosts, which dispersed northward to find new pastures and breeding grounds. In this vernal journey, the flocks were so densely packed and followed one another so swiftly that they darkened the sky like a pall of thunderclouds, and by their impact produced the roar of an advancing storm with its at-tending wind.
Of the few attempts to compute the number of birds in one of the spring hosts, that of McGee who, in the sixties, frequently observed them coming up the Mississippi Valley, one of the old migration routes, probably comes nearest the truth. Assuming the cross section of an average flock to measure one hundred yards from front to rear, and fifty yards in height, he finds the same to comprise some 8,800,000 birds to the mile, or 30,000,000 for a flock extending from one woodland to another. "Such flocks passed repeatedly during the greater part of the day of chief flight at intervals of a few minutes. The aggregate number of birds must have approached one hundred and twenty millions an hour for five hours, or 600,000,000 Pigeons virtually visible from a single point in the culminating part of a single typical migration." During its passage, this vast army would at times indulge in marvelous aerial displays, moving gracefully through intricate maneuvers as one body. Descending the Ohio in 1810, Wilson watched such a gymnastic feat: "The great host with its glittering undulations marked a space in the face of the heavens resembling the windings of a vast and majestic river . . Suddenly the birds would change their direction, so that what was in column before became an immense front, straightening all its indentures until it swept the heavens in one vast and infinitely extended line. Other lesser bodies also united with each other as they happened to approach, with such ease and elegance of evolution, forming new figures and varying these as they united or separated, that I never was tired of contemplating them."
Previous to permanent settlement and for a few subsequent decades, the breeding range embraced the middle tier of states from Missouri to New York, its upper border east of the Appalachians curving sharply northward to follow the southern rim of the St. Lawrence drainage. From colonial times onward, great flights are frequently reported from this eastern section; but the bulk of the birds no doubt inhabited the western half of their habitat.
Simon Pokagon, the famous Indian chief, than whom no man knew better or loved more the O-me-me-wog of his people, writes that between 1840 and 1880 he visited many breeding places in the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan that were from twenty to thirty miles long and from three to four miles wide, and that every tree in its limits was spotted with nests. A forest tract of thirty by three miles comprises ninety square miles. At fifty trees per acre, this area would contain Some 2,880,000 of them. Allowing ten nests per tree, the number of adult birds present amounts to more than 57,000,000.
After the breeding season, swarms wandered about in the spacious summer range, and reveled in the delicious and inexhaustible crops of berries which ripened in rapid succession during their stay. With the coming of autumn, the flocks prepared to depart. Avoiding the spring routes for obvious reasons, they leisurely moved southward over new highways, tarrying for weeks at a time in the newly stocked granaries located within the zone of travel. During the final stages of the retreat, the vast hordes once more gathered in great flights. It was one of these which, in the fall of 1813, surprised Audubon by its magnitude. Watching the advance columns crossing the Ohio south of Louisville, he attempted to get at the number of flocks, and counted one hundred and twenty-three of them in twenty-one minutes. But so swiftly did they go by that the teller desisted. "Pigeons were passing in undiminished numbers that day, and continued to do so for three days in succession." Another observer, who for many years witnessed the return of the flights in northeastern Ohio, puts the number of birds in one of these flocks at 141,000,000.

Man the most dangerous Predator

Among the wild enemies of the Pigeon, indeed the most dangerous of them, was the Indian who levied upon the flocks wherever he found them. The populous roosts of the Southland he invaded at night, and, firing the under-brush, killed the birds by the thousands. Large numbers were caught around the numerous licks in simple traps. But it was at the great nestings that the tribe settled down to a continuous banquet, and during which it gathered a bounteous harvest of savory produce. Some of the older historians occasionally refer to those hunting camps.
photo of bird Writing about 1650, Adrian Van der Douk, in his Description of the New Netherlands,says: "The Indians, when they find the breeding places of the Pigeons, frequently remove to those places with their wives and children to the number of two to three hundred in a company, where they live a month or more on the young Pigeons which they take after flushing them from their nests with poles or sticks." Recalling the old days, Pokagon states that they seldom killed the old birds, but made great preparations to secure their young, out of which the squaws made squab butter, and smoked and dried them for future use. As to the amount of food preserved, John Lawson, who traveled among the tribes of the Carolinas in the first decade of the eighteenth century, relates: "You may find several Indian towns of not above seventeen houses, that have more than a hundred gallons of pigeon oil or fat, they using it with pulse or bread as we do butter." Savage people, the world over, carefully protect their organic resources, and the aborigines shared this wholesome instinct of self-preservation. A pupil of Linnaeus, Peter Kalm, whose name is perpetuated by our Kalmia, or sheep laurel, botanized in the forests of the Atlantic slope between 1740 and 1750. In his copious notes upon the Pigeon, he speaks of this universal trait as shown by the natives. "While the birds are hatching their young, and while the latter are not able to fly, the savages or Indians in North America are in the habit of never shooting or killing them, nor allowing others to do so, pretending that it would be a great pity on their young, which would in that case have to starve to death."
But neither the modest tribute levied by the Indian nor the gigantic contribution exacted by the pioneers sensibly diminished the Pigeon population, which maintained its numbers until improved methods of communication and the decrease of its habitat created new and more adverse conditions. The rapid development of transportation by steam over land and water provided hunter and trapper with ample facilities for the shipment of game to the great cities. In a few years, the birds had become a marketable commodity. About 1840, professional catchers began to prey upon the unprotected flocks. By degrees they bettered the older methods of luring and taking. The chief contrivance universally employed consisted of a capacious net, which could be quickly dropped over a bed baited with salt, mud or grain, and to which the Pigeons were attracted by imitation of their call or by the voices of captive mates serving as decoys.
By 1870, the netters had much increased in numbers. The register book of pigeoners in Wisconsin lists some five hundred names of persons engaged in this unholy traffic at about that time. The business of locating, killing, and marketing the birds was now thoroughly systematized and assumed ominous proportions. Invading the winter home of the flocks, which so far had escaped their marauding expeditions, the pigeoners raided through the cold season. Tracking the birds to the breeding range, they continued their nefarious operations in the great nestings, sparing neither the brooding mates nor their young.
The unfortunately merely reminiscent accounts of some of the active participants in the forays of those days were brought together by Mershon in his valuable book of the Passenger Pigeon. With the convincing simplicity of practical men, the netters describe the remunerative business they followed, and frequently give estimates of the seasonal yield. Averaging these fairly reliable data, we find that the catch for the decade of 1866-1876 amounted to more than 10,000,000 Pigeons per year. This number represents shipments only. The birds used in the camps, those taken by farmers and Indians, and the vast numbers killed accidentally in the overcrowded rookeries probably exceeded 2,000,000 more. Excepting a negligible quantity of squabs, these 12,000,000 were brooding birds, and their death involved that of the nest-lings. This annual and terrific loss suffered by the race, made irreparable by the break in the sequence of generations due to the fiendish destruction of the young, swiftly led to the inevitable end.
In the spring of 1878, the waning flocks established nestings near Petosky, in Emmet County, Michigan, to the south of this in the swampy woodlands of the Manistee River, and near Sheffield, in Warren County, Pennsylvania. The descriptions of these nestings by the pigeoners yield sufficient data to compute their population which, counting five nests per tree, and reducing the figures given by one-third, reaches a total of some 50,000,000. It is known that the Manistee flock, protected by an almost inaccessible forest remote from transportation, escaped destruction. Not so the rookeries of Sheffield and Petosky. From these two localities there were shipped during the season, that is from April to September, some 30,000,000 birds. Thus culminated the relentless persecution of many years in a barbarous massacre where perished the last of the great flights, and which doomed the shattered and surviving remainder.
After the slaughter of 1878, the now utterly disorganized and terror- stricken flocks continued to resort to the breeding range in yet considerable numbers. In 1880, millions of birds passed over Tawas going westward, and a colony of some 10,000 bred in Benzie County. The last known nesting of importance took place near Grand Traverse in the year following. This final stronghold, some eight miles in length, probably sheltered more than 1,000,000 Pigeons. Some 20,000 birds were taken here, to be butchered within a week during a trap-shooting tournament at Coney Island, New York. Breeding flocks of a few hundred individuals appeared in later years. In the spring of 1888, large flocks and many small ones passed over Cadillac, Michigan, and departed forever from the sovereign state, which failed them in their hour of need.
Hand in hand with the extermination of the breeding hosts went that of the wintering flocks, of which no records seem to have been made. A shipment of several hundred dozens of birds, in 1893, marks their ultimate disappearance here. A pitiful remnant, some fifty in all, lingered for a few subsequent years in southwestern Missouri.
A small number of birds outlived the dissolution of the last flocks. Dispersed in couples, in bands of five or more, or as solitary individuals, these were sighted at rare intervals throughout the former breeding range during the nineties. A dozen or so bred near the headwaters of the Au Sable River in 1896. It is the last known nesting. With the beginning of the new century trustworthy records cease, and there is but little doubt that its first years witnessed the passing away of the hapless descendants of a favored race.
Down in the pleasant valley of the Ohio, amidst patriarchs of the forest primeval, lives to this day a captive and lonely daughter of her gentle tribe, and its sole relic, awaiting the final summons which comes to all that breathe.

proceed on The Passenger Pigeon...    Historical Records, 1534-1860   Albert Hazen