There were as many as five billion of them. When the passenger pigeons came together to roost or to feed, the sky would darken with their numbers, the air pushed by their wings would whip to gale force. Their population made up fully one-fourth of all the birds in North America, and it’s estimated that they could fly at 60 miles per hour. And within four decades, we killed them all. From billions to none. How could that possibly happen?
David Blockstein, from the National Council for Science and the Environment explored that question in a recent talk at URI as the second of Rhode Island History Survey’s (RINHS) “Twenty Memorable Events for Twenty Memorable Years” programs. The independent non-profit organization is a consortium of academics, conservationists, professionals and amateurs dedicated to expanding their knowledge of the natural world. This year marks the centenary of the extinction of the Ectopistes migratorius, which means “migratory wanderer”, and “provided a teachable moment,” according to Blockstein. “The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a tragedy beyond comprehension. It would also be a tragedy if we let the centenary of that extinction to pass without notice, and so one of our objectives is to look backwards (at the causes of the extinction) and look forwards (to what we can learn from that extinction) at the same time.”
The passenger pigeon looked similar to mourning doves of today, with longer tails designed for rapid flight. Its principal defense was its massive numbers and speed, with millions of eyes on the watch for predators and the ability to outrun many of them. Its territory was mainly the eastern half of North America, and they fed on superabundant amounts of acorns and beech nuts. “This was a bird with pizzazz,” said Blockstein.
Although passenger pigeons had been hunted for years, the average level of hunting did little to diminish what seemed to be limitless numbers. Blockstein quoted from the legendary ornithologist John James Audubon, who witnessed a massive flock arriving to roost one sunset:
Suddenly there burst forth the cry of ‘Here they come!’ The noise that they made… reminded me of a hard gale at sea passing through the rigging of a close reefed vessel… The birds arrived, and I felt a current of air as the birds passed over me… It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even shout, to the persons who were nearest to me.
“Wherever they went, they were persecuted by humans,” Blockstein explained, “but the human population was relatively low and technology was relatively unadvanced.” While the pigeons were hunted for food, the hunting was mainly on a subsistence level, with most done by an individual to feed his family. By the late 1800’s however, that would change radically with the invention of a seemingly unrelated, humble piece of technology: the telegraph.
In the same way that today’s social media enables birders to instantly notify each other of the presence of a rare bird species, the telegraph was used to notify professional hunters of the location of nesting grounds of passenger pigeons. That information, combined with railroad expansion and the development of refrigerated railroad cars, spelled the beginning of the end for passenger pigeons. Commercial hunting was unregulated, and meant that the professionals could locate the nesting birds, kill them off in massive numbers, and quickly ship the carcasses to the cities and to the tables of consumers. As early as 1857, some began to worry that the wave of hunters pursuing the passenger pigeon would cause irreversible damage to the population. However, as Blockstein read from an Ohio state document of the time, those concerns were brushed off: “The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific…it is here today, and elsewhere tomorrow. No ordinary destruction can lessen them.”
By the turn of the 19th to 20th century, however, “ordinary destruction” had indeed lessened them to the point of extinction. The unregulated exploitation of the species, which would later include the removal of chicks, called squab, from the nests, would prove disastrous. Since these pigeons produced only a single egg per year, and since they were so vulnerable to large scale attack, the population was pushed beyond its recovery point. The last remaining passenger pigeon, kept in a zoo, died in December of 1914.
The downfall of such a seemingly limitless species is comparable to the philosophy people have today toward climate change, according to Blockstein: how can the actions of a few people possibly affect something so vast? He listed other lessons that can be learned today, a hundred years after the last passenger pigeon disappeared forever: 1. “Common” species can still be vulnerable; 2.Obvious explanations can be wrong (It’s important to understand the ecology and biology of a species); 3. Extinction is often due to multiple factors.
“Certainly nobody set out to exterminate the passenger pigeon. That would be like killing the golden goose.” Blockstein pointed to current concern over seemingly large populations like the Monarch butterfly as a parallel to the situation of the passenger pigeon: an animal appearing at times in massive numbers can nevertheless be vulnerable to extermination due to habitat degradation and reduction in food sources. Without careful monitoring, even seemingly healthy populations of plants and animals can suffer the fate of the passenger pigeon: being found only in the lonely, dark drawers of museums or kept stuffed somewhere and displayed under glass.
More information about upcoming events for RINHS is available on their website, www.rinhs.org.
Dr. David Blockstein recommends a new book that traces the decline of the passenger pigeon. Follow this link to learn more. P3 book FeatheredRiver_Passenger Pigeon mag_final-1
Hugh Markey is a freelance writer, naturalist, and teacher living in Richmond.