And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None

Once there was a graceful, attractive bird in North America that caught the attention of early explorers and settlers in the New World. It posed no problem for the human populations and became a staple of the colonists' diet. It was credited with saving the New England Pilgrims from starvation during the severe winter of 1648, which had destroyed their crops. This graceful, attractive, and somewhat noisy bird was the passenger pigeon, most remarkable for its gigantic populations and probably the most abundant bird ever to exist on the planet. Who would have believed that birds numbering in the billions could ever become extinct? Unfortunately, their value as food was discovered early, and hunting them was so easy and successful that casual slaughter began in earnest in the eighteenth century. By 1907, the slaughter was complete.

A French explorer wrote in 1672, "I have seen a flight of pigeons that to my thinking had neither beginning nor ending, length nor breadth, and so thick I could not see the sun." Despite the wholesale killing of the pigeons their numbers continued to increase. By 1800 they accounted for about one—third of the world's bird population. Numbering in many billions, they were observed and studied by naturalists whose eyewitness accounts understated their beauty and elegance and focused on the incredible size of the flocks during migration and nesting periods.

Ornithologists Alexander Wilson and James Audubon both observed flocks of migrating passenger pigeons. Wilson described a flock that began with a "rushing roar, followed by instant darkness." He estimated that the flock was more than a mile wide and about 250 miles long and calculated that this single flock contained well over two billion birds. It took two days for the entire flock to pass over his home in Kentucky.

Audubon witnessed a flight of passenger pigeons in 1813 and wrote, "The air was literally filled with pigeons . . . the noonday light was obscured as if by an eclipse." He was dazzled by the beauty of their aerial acrobatics as they moved in a single unit, undulated, descended close to earth, mounted vertically in a vast column, twisted and wheeled rapidly and elegantly. He also noted that the wings of two billion birds roared like thunder and their dung fell like melting snowflakes.

Since the passenger pigeon was edible and marketable, the slaughter was big business by midcentury. Audubon once described a hunt in which people fired shotguns into masses of birds, killing them by the thousands. The profit motive attracted professionals to the hunt, but for many the pigeon shoot was an elaborate social event of the time — sheer "shooting—fish—in—a—barrel" pleasure. One man boasted of killing 10,000 pigeons in a single day! With shotguns, traps, nets, poles, and the ingenious "stool pigeon," humans managed to extinguish more than one hundred million birds per year (or 274,000 killings per day) — a most remarkable feat!

Still the slaughter continued. Someone surely must have suspected that such indiscriminate killing would result in the extinction of the passenger pigeon, but there were so many of them that it seemed impossible. When a bill proposing to protect the bird was submitted to the state legislature in Ohio in 1857, the committee concluded, "The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific — no ordinary destruction can lessen them." Audubon wrote that persons unacquainted with these birds might suspect that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But he concluded, "I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease."

Audubon was right: the country was growing, and forests were vanishing. The breeding habits of passenger pigeons made it necessary for them to find a new forested area each year. Their nesting areas covered up to a hundred square miles and contained thirty to fifty million birds. Here each hen would lay a single egg. With over a hundred nests to a tree, branches broke under the weight, and trees were stripped bare of leaves. The ground was covered so thickly with droppings that every bush or blade of grass was smothered in dung. The birds left a devastated landscape in their wake.

The population growth of the eighteenth century, from five million to seventy—six million people, completed the job as cities spread, railroads crisscrossed the country, and natural habitats were destroyed. When it became obvious that the pigeon population had been decimated, some isolated efforts were made to replenish the flocks. But passenger pigeons, gregarious birds accustomed to the raucous companionship of their flock, were bewildered, disoriented, and not interested in mating when they were paired off. It was almost as if the species was resigned to extinction. By 1900 only a few scattered pigeons remained. Still, the shooting continued; and then there were none.

Well, not quite none. On March 24, 1900, near Sargeants, in Pike County, Ohio, a young boy was trying out a new air rifle. Spotting a large pigeon on a branch nearby, he drew a bead and squeezed the trigger. His aim was good, and the bird, shot through the head, died instantly. No one in the neighborhood realized at the time that he had just shot the last passenger pigeon ever seen in Ohio. A taxidermist friend mounted his trophy, but instead of returning it to the boy he took it to Ohio State University, where it was identified.

Another last bird was killed by a hunter in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1904. An Arkansas extinction was recorded on the banks of the Black River in 1906. But a Canadian hunter who shot a passenger pigeon in St. Vincent's, Quebec, on September 23, 1907, merits the special distinction of having killed the last member of the species in the wild.

It is truly mind—boggling that less than a hundred years earlier the sky was blackened by billions of passenger pigeons in flight. But what is most deplorable is that man, with no help from nature, was able to exterminate a species by killing at the rate of a hundred million per year! It was the most spectacular casualty of unrestrained hunting during the nineteenth century, when shooting anything that flew, ran, crawled, or hopped was the right and privilege of all men and boys.

A few of the birds did live on, but only in zoos, a pitiful remnant of a once—great species. The last passenger pigeon, twenty—nine—year—old Martha, who had been born in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1885, died there at 1:00 P.M. September 1, 1914. At that moment the species became unequivocally extinct.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth