Passenger Pigeon

Scientific Name
Ectopistes migratorius
Extinct Year
Conservation Status
Extinct (EX)

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Wikipedia Article

The Passenger Pigeon or Wild Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was a bird that existed in North America until the early 20th century when it became extinct due to hunting and habitat destruction. The species lived in enormous migratory flocks. One sighting in 1866 in southern Ontario was described as being 1 mile (1.5 kilometres) wide and 300 miles (500 kilometres) long, and taking 14 hours to pass a single point, with number estimates in excess of 3.5 billion birds in the flock. That number, if accurate, would likely represent a large fraction of the entire population at the time. Some estimate that there were 3 billion to 5 billion Passenger Pigeons in the United States when Europeans arrived in North America. Others argue that the species had not been common in the Pre-Columbian period, but their numbers grew when devastation of the American Indian population by European diseases led to reduced competition for food. The species went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction early in the 20th century. At the time, Passenger Pigeons had one of the largest groups or flocks of any animal, second only to the Rocky Mountain locust. Some reduction in numbers occurred because of habitat loss when the Europeans started settling further inland, especially as it was accompanied by mass deforestation and conversion of habitat to farming. The primary factor emerged when pigeon meat was commercialized as a cheap food for slaves and the poor in the 19th century, resulting in hunting on a massive and mechanized scale. There was a slow decline in their numbers between about 1800 and 1870, followed by a catastrophic decline between 1870 and 1890. Martha, thought to be the world's last Passenger Pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.
The Passenger Pigeon is a member of the Columbidae family (pigeons and doves) that has been assigned to the genus Ectopistes. Earlier descriptions of the species placed it within the genus Columba, but it was transferred to a monotypic genus due to the greater length of the tail and wings. The fossil record of the bird stretches back to the Pleistocene. The Passenger Pigeon's closest living relative were thought to be the Zenaida doves based on morphological grounds. The mourning dove was even suggested to belong to the genus Ectopistes, as E. carolinensis. However, recent genetic data showed it was closer to the American pigeons Patagioenas. Rather than belonging (like Zenaida) to the American dove clade around Leptotila, the DNA sequence data show Ectopistes to be part of a radiation that includes the "typical" Old World pigeons (e.g., Domestic Pigeon Columba livia) and the Eurasian turtledoves (Streptopelia) and Patagioenas, as well as the cuckoo-doves and relatives of the Wallacea region and its surroundings. If anything, Ectopistes is closer to the former, but relationships within this Columbidae lineage are not fully resolved yet.
The generic epithet translates as 'wandering about', the specific indicates that it is migratory; the Passenger Pigeon's movements were not only seasonal, as with other birds, they would mass in whatever location was most productive and suitable for breeding. In the 18th century, the Passenger Pigeon in Europe was known to the French as tourtre; but, in New France, the North American bird was called tourte. Tourtire, a traditional meat-pie originating from Quebec and associated with French-Canadian culture, was so-named because tourte was historically a key ingredient. Today, the dish is typically made from pork and/or veal, or beef. In modern French, the bird is known as the pigeon migrateur. In Algonquian languages, it was called amimi by the Lenape and omiimii by the Ojibwe. The term passenger pigeon in English derives from the French word passager, meaning to pass by in a fleeting manner. Jesuit missionary Jacques Gravier's pioneering Kaskaskia-French dictionary explicitly describes and names the passenger pigeon as mimi8a in the Kaskaskia Illinois language, said to be equivalent to tourtre in French.
The Passenger Pigeon was larger than a Mourning Dove and had a body size similar to a large Rock Pigeon. The average weight of these pigeons was 340400 grams (1214 oz) and, per John James Audubon's account, length was 42 cm (16.5 in) in males and 38 cm (15 in) in females. The Passenger Pigeon had a bluish gray head and rump, slate gray back, and a wine red breast. The male had black streaks on the scapulars and wing coverts and patches of pinkish iridescence at the sides of the neck changed in color to a shining metallic bronze, green, and purple at the back of the neck in various lights. Female and immature birds were similarly marked but with duller gray on the back, a lighter rose breast and much less iridescent necks. The tail was extremely long at 2023 cm (89 in) and gray to blackish with a white edge.
The Passenger Pigeon was a very social bird. It lived in colonies stretching over hundreds of square miles, practicing communal breeding with up to a hundred nests in a single tree. It may have been the most numerous bird on earth in its heyday, and A. W. Schorger believed it accounted for between 25 and 40 percent of the total landbird population in the US. Pigeon migration, in flocks numbering billions, was a spectacle without parallel, as described in The Smithsonian Encyclopedia: "Early explorers and settlers frequently mentioned Passenger Pigeons in their writings. Samuel de Champlain in 1605 reported "countless numbers," Gabriel Sagard-Theodat wrote of "infinite multitudes," and Cotton Mather described a flight as being about a mile in width and taking several hours to pass overhead. Yet by the early 1900s no wild Passenger Pigeons could be found." It is hypothesized that their survival was based on the benefits of very large numbers. There was safety in large flocks which often numbered hundreds of thousands of birds. When a flock of this huge a 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 would be inflicted on the flock as a whole. It was common for passenger pigeon flocks to perch on each other's backs, an unusual behavior even for socially inclined birds. It is believed the bird played a large ecological role in the presettlement forests of North America through tree breakage and depositing of excrements, thereby influencing the distribution of certain tree-types.
The mainstays of the passenger pigeon's diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests. Worms and insects supplemented the diet in spring and summer. The pigeon was able to disgorge food from its crop when more desirable food became available.
John James Audubon described the courtship of the passenger pigeon as follows: The communal nesting sites were established in forest areas that had a sufficient supply of food and water available within daily flying range. A single site might cover many thousands of acres, and the birds were so congested in these areas that hundreds of nests could be counted in a single tree. Since no accurate data were recorded, it is only possible to give estimates on the size and population of these nesting areas. One large nesting area in Wisconsin was reported as covering , and the number of birds nesting there was estimated to be around 136,000,000. The nests were loosely constructed of small sticks and twigs and were about a foot in diameter. A single, white, elongated egg was laid per nesting. The incubation period was from twelve to fourteen days. Both parents shared the duties of incubating the egg and feeding the young. The young bird was naked and blind when born, but grew and developed rapidly. When feathered it was similar in color to that of the adult female, but its feathers were tipped with white, giving it a scaled appearance. It remained in the nest about fourteen days, being fed and cared for by the parent birds. By this time it had grown large and plump and usually weighed more than either of its parents. It had developed enough to take care of itself and soon fluttered to the ground to hunt for its food.
The time of the spring migration depended on weather conditions. Small flocks sometimes arrived in the northern nesting areas as early as February, but the main migration occurred in March and April. The flocks would travel massive distances, and might not return to a particular location "for decades." Traveling for hours at 60 miles per hour meant that vast ranges could be covered. During summer, Passenger Pigeons lived in forest habitats throughout North America east of the Rocky Mountains from eastern and central Canada to the Northeastern United States. In the winters, they migrated to the Southern United States and occasionally to Mexico and Cuba.
The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon has two major causes. The primary cause is held to be the commercial exploitation of pigeon meat on a massive scale. Loss of habitat also played a role. The large flocks and communal breeding of the bird became very dangerous when humans began to hunt the pigeons. When the Passenger Pigeons were massed together, especially at a huge nesting site, it was easy for people to slaughter them in such great numbers that there were not enough birds left to successfully propagate the species. As the flocks dwindled in size with resulting breakdown of social facilitation, it was doomed to disappear. Naturalist Paul R. Ehrlich wrote that the Passenger Pigeon's extinction "illustrates a very important principle of conservation biology: it is not always necessary to kill the last pair of a species to force it to extinction. Sad to say, the lesson of the Passenger Pigeon has not been learned. At the present time the White-crowned Pigeon is threatened by the horrendous slaughter of nesting birds on its Caribbean breeding grounds."
Prior to colonization, Aboriginal Americans occasionally used pigeons for meat. In the early 19th century, commercial hunters began netting and shooting the birds to sell in the city markets as food, as live targets for trap shooting and even as agricultural fertilizer. Once pigeon meat became popular, commercial hunting started on a prodigious scale. The bird painter John James Audubon described the preparations for slaughter at a known pigeon-roosting site: Pigeons were shipped by the boxcar-load to the eastern cities. In New York City, in 1805, a pair of pigeons sold for two cents. Slaves and servants in 18th and 19th century America often saw no other meat. By the 1850s, it was noticed that the numbers of birds seemed to be decreasing, but still the slaughter continued, accelerating to an even greater level as more railroads and telegraphs were developed after the American Civil War. At Petoskey, Michigan in 1878, 50,000 birds were killed each day for nearly five months. The adult birds that survived the slaughter attempted second nestings at new sites, but were killed by professional hunters before they had a chance to raise any young. A state historical marker commemorates the events, including the last great nesting in 1878. Neltje Blanchan, in her book Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted documented that over a million birds were exterminated at one time from a single flock. One hunter was reputed to have personally killed "a million birds" and earned $60,000, the equivalent of $1,000,000 today. Paul Ehrlich says a "single hunter" sent three million birds to eastern cities. Alcohol-soaked grain intoxicated the birds and made them easier to kill. Smoky fires were set to nesting trees to drive them from their nests.
Another significant reason for its extinction was deforestation. The birds traveled and reproduced in prodigious numbers, satiating predators before any substantial negative impact was made in the bird's population. As their numbers decreased along with their habitat, the birds could no longer rely on high population density for protection. Without this mechanism, many ecologists believe, the species could not survive.
An often-cited example of coextinction is that of the Passenger Pigeon and its parasitic lice Columbicola extinctus and Campanulotes defectus. By 2000, however, C. extinctus was rediscovered on the Band-tailed Pigeon, and C. defectus was found to be a likely case of misidentification of the existing Campanulotes flavus.
In 1857, a bill was brought forth to the Ohio State Legislature seeking protection for the Passenger Pigeon. A Select Committee of the Senate filed a report stating "The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced." Conservationists were ineffective in stopping the slaughter. A bill was passed in the Michigan legislature making it illegal to net pigeons within two miles (3 km) of a nesting area, but the law was weakly enforced. By the mid 1890s, the Passenger Pigeon almost completely disappeared. In 1897, a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature asking for a ten-year closed season on Passenger Pigeons. This was a futile gesture. Similar legal measures were passed and disregarded in Pennsylvania. This was a highly gregarious species the flock could initiate courtship and reproduction only when they were gathered in large numbers; it was realized only too late that smaller groups of Passenger Pigeons could not breed successfully, and the surviving numbers proved too few to re-establish the species. Attempts at breeding among the captive population also failed for the same reasons. Attempts to revive the species by breeding the surviving captive birds were not successful. The passenger pigeon was a colonial and gregarious bird practicing communal roosting and communal breeding and needed large numbers for optimum breeding conditions. It was impossible to reestablish the species with just a few captive birds, and the small captive flocks weakened and died. By the turn of the 20th century, the last group of passenger pigeons, all descended from the same pair, was kept by Professor Charles O. Whitman at the University of Chicago. The last attempt to breed the remaining specimens was done by Whitman and the Cincinnati Zoo, which included attempts at making a rock dove foster passenger pigeon eggs. Whitman sent Martha, which was to be the last known specimen, to Cincinnati Zoo in 1902. The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon aroused public interest in the conservation movement and resulted in new laws and practices which prevented many other species from becoming extinct. Naturalist Aldo Leopold paid tribute to the vanished species in an observance held at Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin, which had been one of the species' social roost sites. Speaking on May 11, 1947, Leopold remarked: Some have suggested cloning the Passenger Pigeon in the future.
The last fully authenticated record of a wild bird was near Sargents, Pike County, Ohio, on March 22, 1900, when the bird was killed by a boy with a BB gun. Although many unconfirmed sightings were reported in the first decade of the 20th century. From 1909 to 1912, rewards were offered for a living specimen no specimens were found. However, unconfirmed sightings continued up to about 1930. Reports of Passenger Pigeon sightings kept coming in from Arkansas and Louisiana, in groups of tens and twenties, until the first decade of the 20th century. The naturalist Charles Dury, of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote in September 1910: "One foggy day in October 1884, at 5 a.m. I looked out of my bedroom window, and as I looked six wild pigeons flew down and perched on the dead branches of a tall poplar tree that stood about one hundred feet away. As I gazed at them in delight, feeling as though old friends had come back, they quickly darted away and disappeared in the fog, the last I ever saw of any of these birds in this vicinity."
On September 1, 1914, Martha, the last known Passenger Pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati, Ohio. Her body was frozen into a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was skinned, dissected, photographed and mounted. Currently, Martha (named after Martha Washington) is in the museum's archived collection, and not on display. A memorial statue of Martha stands on the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo. John Herald, a bluegrass singer wrote a song dedicated to Martha, entitled "Martha: Last of the passenger pigeons". The song tells the story about the Passenger Pigeon's extinction and Martha's life in her cage in Cincinnati Zoo.