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updated: 1/21/2014 1:59 PM

100 years later: Lessons we can learn from the passenger pigeon

Lessons we can learn from the extinction of the passenger pigeon

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  • The last passenger pigeon, famously known as Martha of the Cincinnati Zoo, died in 1914. At one time, passenger pigeon populations ranged from 3 billion to 5 billion.

      The last passenger pigeon, famously known as Martha of the Cincinnati Zoo, died in 1914. At one time, passenger pigeon populations ranged from 3 billion to 5 billion.
    Daily Herald File Photo

  • This stuffed passenger pigeon is more than 100 years old, according to its owner, Joel Greenberg of Westmont.

       This stuffed passenger pigeon is more than 100 years old, according to its owner, Joel Greenberg of Westmont.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer, 2011

  • Joel Greenberg of Westmont, displaying his stuffed passenger pigeon, has recently released a book titled "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction." Greenberg will discuss the passenger pigeon and sign copies of his book on March 5 in St. Charles.

       Joel Greenberg of Westmont, displaying his stuffed passenger pigeon, has recently released a book titled "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction." Greenberg will discuss the passenger pigeon and sign copies of his book on March 5 in St. Charles.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer, 2011

 

Imagine a flock of birds stretching from Aurora to Elgin, a mile wide and 20 miles long. Picture 100,000 birds in this flock, flying at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. Watch the sun disappear behind the massive cloud of wings in the sky. Imagine this phenomenon going on for days and days.

Science fiction? Not at all. This real-life drama took place in North America for thousands of years when passenger pigeons, once the most numerous birds on the planet, ruled the skies. You will only experience this in your imagination, though, because the immense flocks are gone. 2014 marks the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

In today's world, the passenger pigeon could be branded an "extreme" bird. Some ornithologists refer to this species as a "biological storm." By all accounts, it was extraordinary. The story of its demise is extraordinary as well.

Passenger pigeon populations ranged from three to five billion. That's right -- billion. At one time. The enormity of their flocks was, as one observer said, "beyond the power of this pencil to portray." It was said that a flock in migration was like a tornado darkening the sky.

"The air rumbled and turned cold," wrote Jennifer Price in her book "Flight Maps." "Bird dung fell like hail. Horses stopped and trembled in their tracks, and chickens went in to roost."

One ornithologist, Price said, watched a flock for five hours, estimating the tidal wave of birds in the sky to be "240 miles long and numbering over two billion birds."

It's hard to fathom the magnitude of these flocks. No one alive today has experienced them, and we rely on written accounts to learn about these magnificent birds.

Margaret Fuller, a renowned 19th century journalist, wrote of passenger pigeons flying across the Rock River in Illinois in 1843.

"Every afternoon (the pigeons) came sweeping across the lawn, positively in clouds, and with a swiftness and softness of winged motion more beautiful than anything of the kind I ever knew. Had I been a musician, such as Mendelssohn, I felt that I could have improvised a music quite peculiar, from the sound they made, which should have indicated all the beauty over which their wings bore them."

The birds' impact was felt in Chicago as well. Joel Greenberg, author of the recently released book "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction," has done extensive research on the species.

"One Chicago newspaper dated September 17, 1836, says that within the past several days 'our town was swarming with pigeons, the horizon in almost every direction was black with them,'" wrote Greenberg on the website www.passengerpigeon.org.

"Nineteen years after that yet another report claimed 'a flock of pigeons, over six miles in length' crossed the city's skies." Imagine such a flock moving over the Loop today.

Passenger pigeons were also noted in Kane County. In 1859, Hugh Alexander wrote in his diary about flocks flying over "Nelson's Grove."

"The wild passenger pigeons came to the grove in multitudinous flocks, and here I had the chance to show my Nimrodic activities and secured quite a string of these beautiful birds quite often."

Passenger pigeons are not to be confused with the decidedly unpopular feral pigeons strutting on city sidewalks these days. The wild pigeons were said to be lovely birds. According to the Smithsonian Institution website: "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 flight. The average length of the male was about 16 inches. The female was about an inch shorter."

The species was one with the vast wild forests in the eastern United States. The birds relied on hardwood trees for food -- primarily acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts. In the spring, they nested in trees, and in the winter they gathered in forests to roost. The livelihood of the passenger pigeon was entirely dependent on the forest.

Passenger pigeons were good to eat -- but, more importantly, they were easy to kill. There are accounts of Philadelphians climbing on their rooftops during a "pigeon year" and "knocking the birds out of the sky." Those who chose to use guns instead of broomsticks would easily bag a bountiful quarry. You couldn't miss when shooting into a cloud of several thousand low-flying birds.

In colonial America, passenger pigeons were served up in kitchens everywhere. They were "broiled and roasted … stewed in gravy and jellied in calf's-foot broth, and salted in barrels," reported Price.

Up to half a dozen pigeons would be baked in pigeon potpie, a common dish made all the more festive by "three feet nicely cleaned" sticking up in the center of the pie "to show what pie it is."

A perfect storm of unregulated hunting, wanton killing, and a drastic loss of habitat brewed in the 1800s. Market hunters took on the lucrative task of slaughtering huge numbers of pigeons in every imaginable way. In one state alone, it was reported that 50,000 birds were killed every day, for almost five straight months.

Professional hunters used poles, shotguns, and nets. They set decoys with live birds whose eyes had been sewn shut, according to one source. They felled trees and scooped up the spoils, primarily young birds called squabs.

People lit fires under roosts, sometimes burning sulfur, to smoke the birds out of the trees. They baited pigeons with alcohol-infused grain, inebriating the birds for easy pickings. There were no regulations, and no limits to their quarry.

In the 1860s some people took note of declining numbers of passenger pigeons. Their disappearance as a species seemed improbable, given the astronomical numbers of pigeons just decades earlier. Passenger pigeons, like all natural resources, were thought to be inexhaustible.

Yet the flocks grew smaller in the 1870s and 1880s, and they appeared infrequently. By this time, much of the forest of the eastern United States had been cleared and fields converted to agriculture. The pigeons' habitat had been pulled right out from under them.

By the late 19th century, a law was passed in Michigan to regulate hunting. But it was too late. There were no pigeons to hunt, in Michigan or anywhere.

Several desperate attempts to locate passenger pigeons at the turn of the century turned up nothing. In 1909, the American Ornithologists Union offered a $1,500 reward to anyone who could find a passenger pigeon nest. Not a single nest was found.

By 1914, a lone female passenger pigeon named Martha eked out the last of her days in the Cincinnati Zoo. She died on Sept. 1, 1914, and the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird on earth, was declared extinct.

This iconic species represented the unfathomable wealth of natural resources in this rich and prosperous land. The seemingly limitless forest of North America is gone, and the passenger pigeon disappeared in its wake.

The story of the passenger pigeon is worth retelling, if only to put our role in the environment in perspective. Is there a take-home lesson in this? Certainly. The real question is whether or not we are willing to learn it.

• Valerie Blaine is the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her by emailing blainevalerie@kaneforest.com

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