For the Birds Radio Program: Passenger Pigeon

Original Air Date: Sept. 21, 1987

Laura talks about the passing of what was one of the most abundant birds ever found on earth. (3:56)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Mourning Dove)

September first marked the 73rd anniversary of the death of Martha, the very last Passenger Pigeon in the world. Martha died in the Cincinatti Zoo in 1914, when she was 29. Although the National Audubon Society offered a huge award for anyone who could locate another pigeon to mate with Martha, the last Passenger Pigeons ever reliably reported in the wild were one shot in Babcock, Wisconsin in 1899 and one shot in Pikes County Ohio in 1900. Franklin Roosevelt claimed to have seen a small flock in Maryland in 1907, but professional ornithologists rejected his sighting because the species had already been declared extinct–perhaps this was one of the deciding factors that led Roosevelt from natural science to politics. There may be one or two people left in Minnesota or Wisconsin who have seen living Passenger Pigeons–when the last of these old timers is gone, again we’ll have lost an irreplaceable treasure.

The Passenger Pigeon looked like an exotic Mourning Dove– large, with a slate-blue head to set off its ruby-red eyes, wine red underparts, red legs and feet, and slate-blue wings and rump. It was called the blue meteor for its speed and beauty.

Its extinction was especially tragic because this bird was once the most abundant bird species on earth. Ornithologists estimate that this relative of Mourning Doves and pigeons comprised fully 25-40% of the bird population in the United States. There were probably somewhere near 3-5 billion Passenger Pigeons in North America when Columbus docked–the only species on earth that can match that today are ones like cockroaches, flies, rats, and humans.

The Passenger Pigeon was the ultimate flocking bird–when a group of them moved over an area, they literally darkened the sky. A single flock could cover an area over a mile wide and 300 miles long. Indians, eagles, and falcons had an abundant and inexhaustible food supply until European man entered the scene with his firearms and his greed. In 1874, after the species had already been decimated in the east, 700,000 pigeons were netted in a single month at one Michigan nesting colony. In New York, tons of birds were shipped to market daily from another single nesting colony. Because squabs–that is, baby pigeons–were especially prized by gourmets, nesting colonies were destroyed as quickly as trappers learned of them. 2-3,000 pigeons could be netted in a single haul, and because the flocks were so dense, dozens of birds could be killed with a single blast of a shotgun.

Nobody expected the pigeons could ever disappear–there were just too many of them. It wasn’t until 1905, well after the species had been officially declared extinct in the wild, that Michigan changed the Passenger Pigeon’s status from a game bird to a non-game bird. Even today, people often debate whether hunting was really what caused the species’ demise–the irreversible destruction of so huge a population of so beautiful a bird is too awesome and utterly wanton a crime for many members of our species to bear. Couldn’t it have been the destruction of the forests? That certainly was a contributing factor, but the incredible numbers of birds shot and netted on their nesting grounds was unarguably the greatest cause.

You can still see Passenger Pigeons in museums, and there’s a monument to Martha, the last one, in Wyalusing State Park in Wisconsin. But the closest thing we have to a living, breathing Passenger Pigeon is our little Mourning Dove, whose sad song seems to cry out at the tragic loss of its relative at the hands of mankind.

(Recording of a Mourning Dove)
This is Laura Erickson and this program has been For the Birds.