Passenger Pigeons

Congratulations, you clicked on the Secret Red Cog. This is the hidden back room of my website, where I keep the things that interest me, but don’t necessarily fit anywhere else.

Like passenger pigeons.

When I tell people I like them, they often say, “Oh, you mean those ones that carry messages, right?”

Martha, the last passenger (1914)

No, that’s a homing pigeon. Remarkable birds, no doubt, but they’re still around. Passenger pigeons, on the other hand, are extinct, and it’s the tragic story of their extinction that makes them remarkable.

In the 18th century, when Europeans were seriously beginning to colonize the Americas, there were an estimated 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons in North America, making it one of the most abundant creatures in the world.

These huge numbers persisted into the 19th century, when they were hunted across the United States and Canada, packed into boxcars, and sent to cities like New York and Boston as cheap food for servants and slaves.

In 1857, a bill was proposed to protect the birds from extinction, but the committee asked to render a verdict on the matter claimed, “the passenger pigeon needs no protection,” claiming they were “wonderfully prolific.”

Indeed, they were. In 1866 there was a citing of a truly massive flock of the birds in Southern Ontario. It was described as 1 mile wide, 300 miles long, and took 14 hours to pass overhead. Amazing stuff!

At the time of this writing, I’m living in that same part of the world. It’s sad to think that less than 200 years ago, I might have seen something as incredible as a 300 mile flock of birds. Unfortunately, just like anyone reading this, I was born too late to see it.

By 1896 there was only one large flock of passenger pigeons left. Although it was commonly acknowledged to be the last wild flock in the world, a group of American hunters killed all 250,000 of those birds in a single day.

The last passenger pigeon in the world was Martha, a resident of the Cincinnati Zoo, who was named after Martha Washington. That bird died on September 1, 1914.

In case you’d like to learn more, much of the above information comes from Arlie William Schorger’s book, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction.

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