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Passenger Pigeon

(Ectopistes migratorius)
Probably Once The Most Numerous Bird on Earth--
It Is Now Extinct

The following photographs are of a specimen kindly made available by the Biology Department at Ball State University.

General Information

The Passenger Pigeon, once probably the most numerous bird on the planet, made its home in the billion or so acres of primary forest that once covered North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Their flocks, a mile wide and up to 300 miles long, were so dense that they darkened the sky for hours and days as the flock passed overhead. Population estimates from the 19th century ranged from 1 billion to close to 4 billion individuals. Total populations may have reached 5 billion individuals and comprised up to 40% of the total number of birds in North America (Schorger 1995). This may be the only species for which the exact time of extinction is known.

 

The Passenger Pigeon was similar to but larger than the Mourning Dove. It had a slate blue head and rump, slate gray back, and a wine red breast. The colors of the male were brighter than those of the female. 

 Passenger Pigeon
Figure 1 - Passenger Pigeon

 

Passenger Pigeon
Figure 2 - Passenger Pigeon

 

The eye was scarlet. There was no black spot on the side of the neck as is found in the Mourning Dove. The short, slender black bill was suited to its diet of acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts, various fruits, grains and insects.

The immense roosting and nesting colonies invited over-hunting. Tens of thousands of individuals were harvested daily from nesting colonies, and shipped to markets in the east. Modern technology hastened the demise of the Passenger Pigeon. With the coming of the telegraph, the locations of flocks could be ascertained, and the birds relentlessly pursued (Weidensaul 1991).

 

Passenger Pigeon
Figure 3 - Passenger Pigeon

Tail Feathers
Figure 4 - Tail Feathers of
Passenger Pigeon

 

This bird was made for flight. Estimates are that it could reach flight speeds of 60 to 70 mph, and possibly even faster. The long slender wings were bluish, and the pointed 8 to 9 inch tail was white and gray.

 

With a stuffed specimen, these ornithology students can only wonder what previous generations witnessed in the once vast forests of North America. Gone with the Passenger Pigeon are the Carolina Parakeet, which met its demise about four years later. Also gone are the magnificent Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Bachman’s Warbler, the Heath Hen, and the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. Other species teeter on the edge of oblivion.

How many of our species today will one day exist only as stuffed specimens to be viewed by future generations? J. J. Audubon wrote, perhaps prophetically, about the Passenger Pigeon: "When an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone."

 

Ornithology Students
Figure 5 - Ornithology Students
Laura and Angie

Nesting Behavior

Passenger Pigeons bred in large colonies, with up to 100 nests in a single tree. Nesting colonies could cover from 30 up to 850 square miles of forest. The nest was loosely made of small twigs. Generally, one egg was laid and incubated by both parents. Both parents tended the chick, and after about 2 weeks, the chick, still unable to fly, would be abandoned. The entire flock would depart, and the chicks would drop to the ground. After a few days, the chicks would begin to fly and to care for themselves (Fuller 1987).

Conservation Status

The Passenger Pigeon is now extinct. Over hunting, the clearing of forests to make way for agriculture, and perhaps other factors doomed the species. The decline was well under way by the 1850’s.

The last nesting birds were reported in the Great Lakes region in the 1890’s. The last reported individuals in the wild were shot at Babcock, Wisconsin in 1899, and in Pike County, Ohio on March 24, 1900. Some individuals, however, remained in captivity.

The last Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo at about 1:00 pm on September 1, 1914. Who could have dreamed that within a few decades, the once most numerous bird on Earth would be forever gone?

Literature Cited

Fuller, E. 1987. Extinct Birds. Facts On File Publications, New York, NY. 256 Pp.

Schorger, A. W. 1955. The Passenger Pigeon. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI.

Weidensaul, S. 1991. The Birder’s Miscellany. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY. 135 Pp.

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