A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

100 Years Since the Last Passenger Pigeon

The pigeon’s extinction is a reminder for us to pay attention.


A passenger pigeon taken in 1893 in Westfield,
Massachusetts, mounted and on display at the
N.H. Fish and Game Department in Concord.
Imagine for a minute a bird that flies in flocks so enormous that they blot out the sun, taking hours to pass and in such intensity of sound that you’d swear a freight train was passing near. 

Imagining is the now only way you can experience the passenger pigeon. It has been extinct for 100 years. Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died September 1, 1914, in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo.

It was a beautiful and strong bird. In his book “A FeatheredRiver across the Sky,” author Joel Greenberg says the passenger pigeon “looked like a mourning dove on steroids.” Its muscular body carried its 10 to 12 ounces along migrations across eastern North America, from the Gulf of Mexico in Texas to the Canadian Maritimes and west to Alberta.

Males were slate-blue and gray, with a breast of iridescent copper and purple. Females were a bit drabber, but delicately brilliant. Individually and collectively, in their enormous flocks, they were a remarkable sight, flying low like a tight school of fish, splitting off and re-forming in great undulating clouds.

While some birds would defy the crowd and fly in solo pairs, they would be seen twice a year as they moved over the lands, including here in New Hampshire. 

Loading Trees by the Thousands

They loaded individual trees by the thousands, to the point where branches would sag heavy with their weight and break. They would arrive in densities so thick that birds were atop birds.

In “A Feathered River,” Greenberg describes John Josselyn’s travels through New England in the 1600s, encountering a single beech tree in New Hampshire that supported 500 nests.

As easy prey, passenger pigeons were a staple in the diet of native peoples thousands of years ago. Northern goshawks, Cooper’s hawks and peregrine falcons likely thrived on them, too.

And from nearly the start of their arrival to North America, Europeans killed them, sometimes for sport, sometimes for market, sometimes for hungry mouths and sometimes for no good reason at all. In New Hampshire, large flocks of passenger pigeons were said to have helped stave off starvation in 1781 when crops failed.

Greenberg sites accounts of children grabbing pigeons by the feet and providing parents with meals. They were taken by rifle, shotgun, hand nets, nets strung between trees and all sorts of clever means. As rails were laid and city markets developed, pigeoners – as they were called – devised ever more improvised ways to kill, prepare, store and sell passenger pigeons for the plate.

Shooting ‘Til the End

Some pigeoners set up long poles at an angle, points protruding above the treetops, where pigeons would alight by the score. One well-aimed shotgun blast would take dozens of birds at a time. Some trained live pigeons to set atop a stool hoisted by a pole to attract hordes of wild pigeons, hence the name stool pigeon.

They were shot as sport in competition, in pigeon shoots. And when passenger pigeons were gone, clay pigeons took their place.

For three centuries, people killed pigeons throughout North America. And when their numbers declined in the 1870s, some remaining passenger pigeons amassed in great numbers. In April 1871, pigeons began nesting in central Wisconsin, ultimately gathering in an area 850 square miles, the largest recorded pigeon nesting site ever. There, they were slaughtered by the millions.

Of course, habitat loss played a role in their demise. Some speculate disease may have hastened it. But few biologists dispute what brought an end to the passenger pigeon.

“Europeans began the killing on or about July 12, 1605, and their successors, the residents of Canada and the United States, did not stop until there were literally no more birds left,” writes Greenberg. “When that happened, they shot mourning doves in the belief they were passenger pigeons. Virtually every time Homo sapiens crossed paths with the pigeons, pigeons died.”

A New Generation of Hope

The last one to be killed in New Hampshire was either a bird in Acworth in 1881 (mounted and on display at the town library), or one shot by W.W. Flint in 1885 in Concord.

By the turn of the century, the last wild passenger pigeons were gone. Only a handful of captive pigeons remained in private collections or zoos. And by September 1, 1914, the aging Martha gave up at the Cincinnati Zoo. The end of a species. Every last one. Gone.

The passenger pigeon’s demise came at a time when mankind’s extreme mistreatment of nature was also inspiring a new generation of hope. Forests in New Hampshire and beyond were being cut to the bone, filling the air with wildfire smoke and clogging Manchester’s mills with silt from the eroding White Mountains. The Weeks Act of 1911 helped protect the White Mountains and other forests.

Theodore Roosevelt and scores of other conservationists inspired new laws to limit market hunting and build what’s now known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Outlaw market hunting; regulate hunters; put taxes on hunting equipment toward science and management; allow states to manage game. It’s not perfect, but it’s still pretty good.

Federal laws were passed and treaties signed to outlaw hunting of birds and other migratory species and allow for their recovery. We’ve seen many species recover, including iconic animals like bison and bald eagles.

Is There Hope?

But 100 years since the passenger pigeon’s demise, the cloud of extinction hovers. And it might be a growing cloud.

Even common species can become rare. In New Hampshire and throughout the Northeast, native bats have been ravaged by disease that biologists are scrambling to understand. One biologist told me that the loss of bats is akin to losing, say, all of our frog species.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 30 percent of amphibians are at risk of extinction; 21 percent of mammals, reptiles and fish; and 12 percent of birds. The culprits are many and complex: loss of habitat, pollution, illegal hunting or take and the introduction of non-native species.

And the biggie: Climate change. It may threaten a lot more than polar bears. The rapidly shifting climate could bring extinctions from pole to pole and the many places in between, especially the tropics, the breadbaskets of biological diversity. In the oceans, in the forests, rivers and skies, some species are hanging on by a thread. Small shifts in the world’s temperatures, in the ocean’s chemical composition and in sea levels could spell the end for some species.

Is there hope? There has to be.

If nothing else, the loss of the passenger pigeon reminds us that we need to pay attention. Take care of what we have. Now. Before it’s too late.