Passenger Pigeons

Passenger Pigeons | AMNH

We know the exact date of the extinction of a once incredibly common species, the passenger pigeon. This pigeon may once have been the most numerous bird species in the world. The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The name comes from the French passager, probably referring to the passing overhead of truly vast flocks. The flocks are thought to have sometimes numbered in the billions of birds, and were probably a strategy to overwhelm predators. The birds ranged over much of what is now the U.S. and into Canada.

Passenger pigeons nested communally; one communal nesting site in 1871 covered 850 square miles. That many birds concentrated could be major threats to a farmer’s fields or orchards, one reason that the birds were killed. The vast concentrations of nesting birds seem to have changed year by year.

The pigeons were also tasty. They had been hunted by Native peoples and then by colonists, but what really destroyed the species was commercial hunting after the Civil War. Local hunting supplemented income and provided food, but professional hunters shot, netted and otherwise killed huge numbers, shipping them to cities as cheap food. The U.S. was stitched together by railroads, so freshly killed pigeons could rapidly reach the growing cities. Pigeons provided good and cheap food. The combination of railroads and the telegraph meant that new communal nesting roosts were quickly discovered and hunters swarmed on the roosts.

Hunters raided nests for the young, called squabs, which were a popular delicacy in restaurants. The species became rare and rumors of communal nesting brought in hunters by train from all over. In that era, there was little in the way of hunting regulations, and the birds could be killed at will, at any time of the year. Martha was the last, lonely bird.

Deep knowledge,and happy reading.
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