10 Facts About the Extinct Passenger Pigeon

Seabamirum, Flickr

One hundred years ago yesterday, the world’s last passenger pigeon died at Ohio’s Cincinnati Zoo. The bird—named Martha, after George Washington’s wife—had been born in captivity and was approximately 29 when she died; her skin was taxidermied (you can see them on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC through October 2015) and her internal organs became part of the Smithsonian’s wet collections. In Martha’s memory, here are a few things you might not have known about the passenger pigeon.

1. At one time, there were billions of passenger pigeons.

According to the Smithsonian, Ectopistes migratorius once made up about 40 percent of North America’s bird population; there may have been three to five billion passenger pigeons when Europeans first came to America. In 1813, naturalist John James Audubon encountered a flock as he rode to Louisville:

I dismounted … and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse …

When he finally reached Louisville—55 miles from where he first saw the birds—they were still flying, and continued to pass for three days

2. They could fly very, very fast.

Though awkward on the ground, these birds—which ranged from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia down to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, nested from the Great Lakes to New York, and wintered from Arkansas to North Carolina and further south—were graceful and highly manuverable in the air, flying at speeds up to 60mph.

3. And they were shaped for speed.

According to the Smithsonian, “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.” On average, males were 16.5 inches, while females were 15.5 inches.

4. The males were gorgeous.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

In the 1829 book American Ornithology, Alexander Wilson describes the males in great detail:

[B]ill black; nostril covered by a high rounding protuberance; eye brilliant fiery orange; orbit, or space surrounding it, purplish flesh-coloured skin; head, upper part of the neck, and chin, a fine slate blue, lightest on the chin; throat, breast and sides, as far as the thighs, a reddish hazel; lower part of the neck and sides of the same resplendent changeable gold, green and purplish crimson, the latter most predominant; the ground colour slate; the plumage of this part is of a peculiar structure, ragged at the ends; belly and vent white; lower part of the breast fading into a pale vinaceous red; thighs the same, legs and feet lake, seamed with white; back, rump and tail-coverts, dark slate, spotted on the shoulders with a few scattered marks of black; the scapulars tinged with brown ; greater coverts light slate; primaries and secondaries dull black, the former tipt and edged with brownish white; tail long, and greatly cunei form, all the feathers tapering towards the point, the two mid dle ones plain deep black, the other five, on each side, hoary white, lightest near the tips, deepening into bluish near the bases, where each is crossed on the inner vane with a broad spot of black, and nearer the root with another of ferruginous; pri maries edged with white; bastard wing black.

The female, he notes, has a “cinereous brown [breast]; upper part of the neck inclining to ash; the spot of changeable gold green and carmine much less, and not so brilliant; tail-coverts brownish slate; naked or bits slate coloured; in all other respects like the male in colour, but less vivid, and more tinged with brown; the eye not so brilliant an orange.”

5. When they roosted, they could shear the limbs off trees.

New York Public Library 

The birds made their homes in forests, flying out during the day to find food (mostly nuts and berries, but also worms and insects) and back at night to roost. According to Wilson, “It was dangerous to walk under these flying and fluttering millions, from the frequent fall of large branches, broken down by the weight of the multitudes above, and which in their descent often destroyed numbers of the birds themselves.”

6. The Largest recorded nesting site was in Wisconsin.

GrrlScientist, Flickr

In 1871, an estimated 136 million passenger pigeons nested over 850 square miles in central Wisconsin. Pottawatomie Chief Pokagon described the event:

Every tree, some of them quite low and scrubby, had from one to fifty nests each. Some of the nests overflow from the oaks to the hemlocks and pine woods. When the pigeon hunters attack the breeding places they sometimes cut the timber from thousands of acres... I there counted as high as forty nests in scrub oaks not over twenty-five feet high; in many places I could pick the eggs out of the nests, being not over five or six feet from the ground.

There is a historical marker at Black River Falls to commemorate the event.

7. They were really noisy.

Aside from the “near-deafening noise” of nesting colonies, little is known about the vocalizations of wild passenger pigeons. What scientific descriptions we do have come from birds in an aviary, described by Wallace Craig in 1911. “If you tell a boy to look for a bird of the same general appearance as the Mourning Dove but larger, he will be sure to mistake some large-appearing Mourning Dove for the Passenger Pigeon,” Craig wrote. “But tell him to look for a pigeon that shrieks and chatters and clucks instead of cooing, and the boy will be less likely to make a mistake.”

He described five vocalizations, including a “unmusical” keck that was “loud, sometimes very loud, harsh, and rather high-pitched ... so far as it can be said to have any pitch at all. It is generally given singly, but sometimes two or more in succession with but, short pause between. … [It] resembles the kah-of-excitement also in that it is often followed immediately by other notes, such as the coo,” and “Scolding, Chattering, Clucking [which] represent the wide variations of this most characteristic and frequent utterance of the Passenger Pigeon. … Wm. Brewster (quoted in Bendire, p. 134) says: ‘They make a sound resembling the croaking of wood-frogs.’”

8. Their courtship rituals different from that of other pigeons.

Biodiversity Heritage Library

Most pigeons perform courtship rituals—which include bowing and strutting—on the ground, but the passenger pigeon was awkward there, so courtship took place on branches or other perches, according to Craig, with the male vocalizing, slightly flapping his wings, and holding his head over the female’s neck. Before mating, the birds would stand side by side, preen each other, and then clasp bills (which is decidedly not how Audubon illustrated it above; Craig wrote that "however great the value of this plate in other respects, its value as a record of the attitudes and habits of the species, is very little").

9. In 1900, a reward was offered to whoever could find passenger pigeons in the wild.

Jeff B, Flickr

A slow decline in the mid-1800s was followed by a catastrophic decline [PDF], and by the late 1800s, it was unusual to see a passenger pigeon in the wild. In an article published on January 16, 1910, the New York Times [PDF] announced that a “THREE HUNDRED DOLLAR REWARD Will Be Paid for a Nesting Pair of of Wild Pigeons”:

Unless the State and Federal Governments come to the rescue of American game, plumed and song birds, the not distant future will witness the practical extinction of some of the most beautiful and valuable species. … The wild pigeon fifty years was so common in the United States that during migratory periods the flocks that crossed the country sometimes dulled the sun from the view of the man below. To-day a standing reward of $300 is offered to any person who can show a nesting pair of these birds.

Sadly, it was too little, too late; the last passenger pigeon seen in the wild was shot that year. Deforestation was a factor in the bird’s extinction, but mostly, it was hunting that did the species in; they went from huge numbers to extinct in just 40 years.

10. Scientists are trying to bring the birds back.

New York Public Library

The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, launched in 2012, aims to bring back the passenger pigeon using the DNA of its closest relative, the band-tailed pigeon. According to National Geographic, the scientists working on the project “can't extract an intact passenger pigeon genome from museum specimens. So they're hoping they can do the next best thing: retool the genome of a living bird species so that it gives rise to a passenger pigeon." The plan is to study DNA from museum specimens to see what sequences might be responsible for production passenger pigeon traits; then, once they've created a genome similar to the passenger pigeons, they'll "insert this altered DNA into reproductive cells in band-tailed pigeon embryos. The birds will mature, mate, and lay eggs. And out of those eggs will emerge passenger pigeons—or at least birds that are a lot like the way passenger pigeons used to be.”

September 2, 2014 - 4:00pm
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