10 Facts About the Extinct Passenger Pigeon

Johann Seligmann, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Johann Seligmann, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just over one hundred years ago, 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 and her internal organs became part of the Smithsonian’s collections. In Martha’s memory, here are a few things you might not have known about the extinct passenger pigeon.

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

Passenger pigeons illustration
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to Smithsonian, Ectopistes migratorius once made up about 40 percent of North America’s bird population; there may have been 3 to 5 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. Passenger pigeons could fly very, very fast.

Stuffed passenger pigeon in flight
Jim, the Photographer, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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 maneuverable in the air, flying at speeds up to 60 mph.

3. And passenger pigeons were shaped for speed.

Passenger pigeon in a museum
Eden, Janine and Jim, A href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/edenpictures/5250295132/in/photolist-8ZX8PS">Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to 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. male passenger pigeons were gorgeous.

Passenger pigeon
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // Public Domain

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 passenger pigeons roosted, they could shear the limbs off trees.

Passenger pigeon
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // Public Domain

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 passenger pigeon nesting site was in Wisconsin.

Passenger pigeons illustration
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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. Passenger pigeons were really noisy.

Passenger pigeon
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // Public Domain

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. Passenger pigeon courtship rituals different from those of other pigeons.

Passenger pigeons illustration
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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 John James 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 whomever could find passenger pigeons in the wild.

Passenger pigeon
Jeff B, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

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 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 and the boom-and-bust availability of its food were factors in the bird’s extinction. Hunting, also, may have done the species in; they went from huge numbers to extinct in just 40 years.

10. Scientists are trying to bring the passenger pigeon back.

Passenger pigeon
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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 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.”

Massive Swarms of Migrating Dragonflies Are So Large They’re Popping Up on Weather Radar

emprised/iStock via Getty Images
emprised/iStock via Getty Images

What do Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio all have in common? Epic swarms of dragonflies, among other things.

WSLS-TV reports that this week, weather radar registered what might first appear to be late summer rain showers. Instead, the green blotches turned out to be swarms of dragonflies—possibly green darners, a type of dragonfly that migrates south during the fall.

Norman Johnson, a professor of entomology at The Ohio State University, told CNN that although these swarms happen occasionally, they’re definitely not a regular occurrence. He thinks the dragonflies, which usually prefer to travel alone, may form packs based on certain weather conditions. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is: Johnson said that entomologists haven’t worked out all the details when it comes to dragonfly migration. They do know that the airborne insects cover an average of eight miles per day, while some overachievers can fly as far as 86.

Based on the radar footage shared by the National Weather Service’s Cleveland Office, the dragonfly clouds seem almost menacing. But, while swarms of any insect species aren’t exactly delightful, these creatures are both harmless and surprisingly beautiful, at least up close. Anna Barnett, a resident of Jeromesville, Ohio, even told CNN that witnessing the natural phenomenon was “amazing!”

Amazing as it may be to see, it’s hard to hear news about unpredictable animal behavior without wondering if it’s related in some way to Earth’s rising temperatures. After all, climate change has already affected wasps in Alabama, polar bears in Russia, and no doubt countless other animal species around the world.

[h/t WSLW-TV]

6 Fall Festivals Around the World That Celebrate Animals

Prakash Mathema, AFP/Getty Images
Prakash Mathema, AFP/Getty Images

Where would humans be without animals? Chickens and cows give us eggs and milk, providing nourishment (and also cake). Horses, donkeys, and water buffalo are as hardworking as any person, and thanks to our pets, we always have a source of love and entertainment to come home to. It's time we celebrate animals more often, and to get you started, here are six fall festivals around the world that do just that.

1. Kukur Tihar

Dog in Nepal during a fall festival
Tuayai/iStock via Getty Images

A big part of Tihar, a five-day Hindu festival held in late autumn in Nepal, is giving thanks to other species. Crows, believed to be the messengers of death, are worshipped on the first day. Cows are worshipped on the third, and often oxen on the fourth. The second day, though, is all about man's best friend. Dogs are described favorably in Hindu religious texts, and it’s believed that they can warn people of impending danger and even death. In a ceremony called Kukur Tihar, people place flower garlands around the necks of both pet dogs and stray dogs to show their respect. A red dot (tika) is placed on their foreheads in an act of worship, and naturally, the dogs are spoiled with lots and lots of treats.

2. Transhumance Festival

Hundreds of sheep in the street
Pierre Philippe Marcou, AFP/Getty Images

In Spanish, this festival in Madrid is called Fiesta de la Trashumancia. The word transhumance refers to the act of moving herds of livestock to different grazing grounds depending on the season. In practice, it's quite the spectacle. Thousands of sheep have been led through the streets of Madrid each autumn since the festival was formally established in 1994. Men and women in traditional garb lead the way, singing and dancing along the parade route in celebration of centuries-old shepherding traditions.

3. Monkey Buffet Festival

A monkey eating various kinds of fruit
Saeed Khan, AFP/Getty Images

Visitors to Thailand’s temples are advised not to feed the monkeys (they can get awfully handsy), but the locals of Lopburi make an exception on the last Sunday of November. On this day, towers of fruit and banquet tables containing several tons of food and even cans of Coca-Cola are set up in the ruins of a 13th-century temple. Once a sheet is removed to unveil the spread, it doesn’t take long for Lopburi’s thousands of macaques to arrive. Thailand's reverence for monkeys dates back some 2000 years to legends surrounding the monkey king Hanuman and his heroic feats. Nowadays, the creatures are considered a sign of good luck in the country.

4. Woolly Worm Festival

The woolly worm is to Banner Elk, North Carolina, what the groundhog is to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to local folklore, the color of this fuzzy caterpillar can be analyzed in autumn to predict how severe the forthcoming winter will be. The 13 segments on its body are thought to correspond to the 13 weeks of winter—more black means colder weather and snow, while more brown means the weather will be fair. To make this prognostication process more official, the Woolly Worm Festival was established on the third weekend of October in 1978. This year, it will be held October 20-21. A worm race is the main event, and the caterpillar that climbs the fastest up three feet of string gets the honor of helping to predict the winter (plus a $1000 cash prize for the worm’s coach). “Patsy Climb” and “Dale Wormhardt” were a couple of past competitors.

5. Pushkar Camel Fair

Decorated camels
Roberto Schmidt, AFP/Getty Images

The Indian state of Rajasthan is a vibrant place. It’s home to the Pink City, Blue City, and Yellow City, and it also hosts a colorful cultural event each November called the Pushkar Camel Fair. Celebrated on a full moon day of the Hindu lunar calendar, it’s one of the largest fairs of its kind in the world. The annual gathering is a chance for traders to show off their camels and livestock, while also celebrating local culture and traditions. Both the people and camels sport brilliant attire, participate in a variety of competitions, and dance to lively music. (Yes, there’s video evidence of a dancing camel, but the word dance is used loosely.)

6. Birds of Chile Festival

Held each fall in Viña del Mar along Chile's Pacific coast, the Festival de Aves de Chile celebrates the beauty and diversity of the country's birds. Festival-goers have the chance to see Chile’s national bird—the wide-winged Andean condor, which happens to be one of the largest flying birds in the world—as well as other feathered friends in their natural environment. A series of excursions and talks featuring bird experts are organized each year.

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