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.”

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”


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