Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon

September 1, 1914

I doubt anyone or anything – newspapers, magazines, TV news broadcasts or tweets – will commemorate the landmark event of 101 years ago.

No drum roll, no banners, just a sad asterisk in history.

On September 1, 1914, Martha, believed to be the world’s last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.
The passenger pigeon numbered in the billions during the 19th century, yet disappeared from the face of the earth by the early 20th century. At one time it was the most numerous bird in North America, traveling in groups, eating and nesting together, then moving on, roaming from southern shores along the Gulf Coast to woodlands in the northern states and Canada. The numerous densely packed birds offered easy prey.

The birds needed vast forestlands to support their population. Deforestation and hunting depleted flocks. The pigeons produced a couple of eggs per year. Their reproduction rate could not make up for the multitudes killed.

The bird may have faced extinction eventually because of an inability to adapt and share the continent with newcomers, but humans never gave them a chance.

The end occurred quickly.

I doubt many took notice of the passenger pigeon’s demise. People were too involved in the events of the time, such as World War I, which began a couple of months earlier in Europe.

The term climate change was decades from becoming part of our everyday lexicon, and conservation a new idea introduced to the American public by a small number of forward-thinking politicians, scientists, writers and artists.

President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman and prominent conservationist, made preservation and the environment a priority during his administration, creating the National Forest Service, five national parks, four game refuges, and 51 national bird reservations.

Over the past 500 years over 1,000 species disappeared forever, many a result of human activity. A timeline of some of the creatures declared extinct from 1600 to the present can be found here.
There is probably no one alive who remembers seeing a passenger pigeon. Out of sight, out of mind, what we never knew or experienced we do not miss. We may not mourn the passenger pigeon, but how many animals and plants and habitats must disappear before recognizing hey, you know what? We do miss them

"We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. 
But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen 
when our forests are gone, 
when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, 
when the soils have still further impoverished 
and washed into the streams, 
polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation."     


  1. Having recently read "The Bully Pulpit" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, I can definitely say --- how do I put this? -- that T. Roosevelt did have his good points.

  2. I didn't know that anyone actually thought about the earth's finite resources that long ago. I wish more people had paid attention! And thanks for the info about the passenger pigeon.

    1. Henry David Thoreau's book 'Walden', published in 1854, about time spent communing with nature, is often noted to be one of the first 'conservationist' books.

  3. I was under the impression that they were shot for "sport" right into extinction.

    1. The pigeons were easy targets, roosting and flying together in such large numbers, they were not considered 'fun' hunting, although young boys hunted them for fun. the birds, especially young ones, apparently tasted good, and were a cheap source of food. Hunters sold them.

  4. How very sad. I wish I had been alive to see one. Were they really killed for sport? Thanks for all the interesting information about a bird we will never know.

    1. Apparently young kids killed them for sport, older folks killed them to eat and/or sold them.

  5. Thank you for the memorium for the Passenger Pigeon.