Passenger pigeons

Passenger pigeons are fascinating. They used to exist in the billions in the US, so numerous that they sometimes blackened the sky. But like so many species, they went extinct. What is remarkable, though, is that we think we know the exact date that this unfortunate event happened.

It was a hundred years ago, on September 1, 1914, that they went totally extinct when Martha, the last surviving one, was found dead in her cage at the Cincinnati zoo.

The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird in North America, perhaps in the world; it’s estimated that when the first European settlers arrived, at least one of every four birds on the continent was a passenger pigeon. The early colonists were awed by the vastness of the flocks, which contained hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of birds. As late as the eighteen-seventies, passenger pigeons still could be seen passing overhead in astonishing, sky-darkening numbers; then, over the course of just four decades, the species, Ectopistes migratorius, dwindled down to Martha and her companion, a male named George. Then it was just Martha. And then there were none.

What happened? It was a result of being relentlessly hunted and slaughtered and the remarkable thing is that not a single pigeon fossil has ever been found, showing how rarely fossilization occurs. When creationists repeatedly demand the production of links in the evolutionary chain, they reveal their ignorance of how rare fossilization is and how lucky we are to have the ones we have. The only reason we know the passenger pigeon existed at all and what they looked like is because of historical records and drawings and a stuffed Martha kept at the Smithsonian. (Thanks to Aspect Sign for the correction.)

What enabled them to be slaughtered so efficiently was technology, specifically the arrival of wireless telegraphy that enabled word to be quickly spread to hunters about the location of the flocks of birds and trains to quickly take them there.

“The telegraph allowed word to go out: ‘The pigeons are here,'” says David Blockstein, a senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment and a founder of Project Passenger Pigeon. Thousands of hunters would then jump on newly built trains to ride out to wherever the pigeons had settled and start slaughtering them.

The hunters weren’t just killing the birds to feed their families, however. Pigeons would be stuffed into barrels and loaded back onto the trains, which would deliver them to distant cities, where they’d be sold everywhere from open air markets to fine restaurants. “Technology enabled the market,” says Blockstein.

Scientists are trying to see if they can reverse engineer this and a few other extinct species and bring them back to life. It’s a long shot.


  1. says

    “not a single pigeon fossil has ever been found”

    According to the Wikipedia page on passenger pigeons 130 fossils have been discovered dating back as far as 100,000 years, and a quick web search brings up multiple pieces discussing Passenger Pigeon fossils and where they have been most often found and which periods dated to.

  2. Michael Duchek says

    Although the hunting was extensive, loss of habitat and breeding sites were probably the primary drivers.

    They nested in huge rookeries. The market hunters would set fire to the rookeries, and then collect the chicks that were forced to jump. The chicks were then put into pickle barrels for shipment to eastern restaurants as squab. So the pigeons not only lost the years reproduction, but the rookery.

    In addition, their sloppy nesting habits required huge rookeries for there to be breeding success, so once their populations were pushed below a tipping point, they were doomed.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Aspect Sign,

    Thanks or the correction. I could have sworn that I read an article some time ago that said that no fossils existed so I did not bother to go back and check. Serves me right. I have corrected it.

  4. ShowMetheData says

    There was a PBS special – “Billions to None” Documentary on the Passenger Pigeon to Air

    WUCF Orlando 10/5 4 pm
    WPT Wisconsin Public TV 10/7 10 pm
    WXEL West Palm Beach 10/11 9 pm
    WGBH Boston 10/26 1 pm
    KQED Plus: Tue, Oct 7, 2014 — 11:00pm
    KQED Plus: Wed, Oct 8, 2014 — 5:00am

    There is a separate Lecture on the Passenger Pigeon
    One fact – 2 billion pigeons

  5. says

    I was just looking up info on Passenger Pigeons a couple of months back so it was still in my head. Don’t ask me why I was looking up Passenger Pigeons because I have no idea. It must of been one of those random follow the links strolls through the internet.

  6. Robert E says

    Allow me to further this conversation and direct everyone to the newly renovated Passenger Pigeon Memorial at the Cincinnati Zoo:

    Also, I am extremely proud as my girlfriend (Sophie) developed the initial renovation proposal, developed interpretive plan and exhibit design, and wrote all exhibit content. She also provided recommendations for preserving and protecting the physical elements of the building, and art and archival materials.

    As a reader of this blog and former student of Mano, I was very happy to share this post with my girlfriend!

  7. Lucyindagarden . says

    Honestly, I see no point in bringing passenger pigeons back to life. They would make a horrific pest. It’s a warm-blooded version of locusts.
    Besides, the ecosystem has moved on so releasing them back to environment would ensure an ecological catastrophe.

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