The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction

The passenger pigeon’s numbers went from billions to zero within a century — what caused the rapid extinction of this once abundantly found species?

Published: 30th October 2014 06:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th October 2014 02:24 PM   |  A+A-

‘Feathered river’ alludes to the condition of the skies of North America in the 19th century, when the iconic passenger pigeons flocked in billions. Just the word ‘billions’ may not give you the correct visual though. Imagine birds filling the sky for a stretch of up to three kilometres. In width, the flock was so thick that it blocked out sunlight for hours, much like what happens on a cloudy day. These ‘blue pigeons’ always moved in flocks, roosting and nesting in colonies of billions such that huge trees toppled under their combined weight! They came from the once vast expanse of the eastern North American forests stretching unfragmented from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and beyond. Fast forward 100 years — the species is extinct. Shocking, isn’t it? And the Europeans, on arriving in North America, were the sole race responsible for reducing a super abundant species consisting of three to five billion pigeons to zilch! The wild pigeons lived alongside the native Red Indians for ages, but they were not allowed to do so with the advent of the Europeans.

The pigeons fed on the nuts produced in copious amounts by trees in the North American forests, like oak and beech. But the trees produced seeds irregularly — one year there would be massive nut production and the next year that area would be fruitless. The coming of the Europeans into North America resulted in the expansion of agriculture, railways and industrialisation, due to which the forests reduced in dimension. Thus the available habitat and roosting spaces for the pigeons shrank and became restricted. Consequently these places became accessible to hunters.

With the advent of the telegraph and railroad in the 1840s, information on the whereabouts of the birds spread like fire and hunters from all over converged to take part in the colossal carnage. The proximity to rail stations enabled the pigeon corpses to be easily transported to markets. The equation was simple – dense nesting patterns, a lot of birds, delicious and cheap meat, quick source of protein and easy money-making. At times, the prices were so low that a dozen pigeons could be traded for a single loaf of bread! In some places, the birds were discarded as garbage or used to fill potholes on the road! The shooting, burning and cutting of nesting trees made many birds abandon their nests before eggs were laid or hatched, or chicks were fledged. The chicks, on the other hand, were equally coveted and barrels full of chicks met the same fate as the adults. To add to that, passenger pigeons nested once a year and laid a single egg. Their impending nemesis — extinction — was therefore just a matter of time: just about fifty years!

The tremendous torture inflicted on the species was inevitably borne by lone Martha, a single passenger pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo. Through 29 years, she slowly lost the desire to move, especially once her partner George died in 1910. Visitors flocking to the zoo often threw sand at her to prompt her to move until the zoo took steps to stop the nonsense. She finally gave up her fight and joined the rest of her species in September 1914, after which she was frozen in a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where she remains to this day.

The pigeons went into oblivion forever, but spawned in their wake,  was America’s first great environmental movement. In Congressman John Fletcher Lacey’s words, “It is too late as to the wild pigeon. The buffalo is almost a thing of the past, but there still remains much to preserve”. The Lacey Act, which banned interstate trade in illegally obtained birds, came into being. The following years saw the birth of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which halted slaughter of migratory birds.

Having a strong legal framework is a good idea but laws should not guide our actions. Perhaps all we need to do is take one afternoon off and look at the last available picture of Martha when she was alive. It is a picture that continues to haunt me. She belonged to a species that was abundant but that was not good enough. No matter how abundant something is, we will lose it if we are not circumspect in our use of it. The earth today is teeming with one species — humans. We are the abundant species now. As we cherish desires to make life more comfortable and beyond, we are inevitably increasing consumption and altering the world’s climate. The passenger pigeons could have been wiped out because people were ignorant but today, in the 21st century, we are aware of a lot of things. We know what will happen if consumption patterns increase exponentially. Yet we choose to look away.

Martha teaches us otherwise. She tells us to be vigilant and cautious. If her species could die out, so can many others. The rare ones can vanish in the blink of an eyelid. We need to ask ourselves, what then? We need to wake up and realise that our species does not exist in an exclusive bubble.

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