The Passing of the Passenger Pigeon
July 16, 2015
Perhaps you’ve been to the Little Traverse Historical Museum and wondered why there’s an entire exhibition dedicated to passenger pigeons. Maybe you’ve seen the memorial to the passenger pigeon at the Oden Fish Hatchery six miles north of Petoskey or wondered about the name of the Pigeon River area. What is it about this particular bird that’s piqued our region’s interest for so long?
THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS
The passenger pigeon is now extinct. The last one thought to exist, named Martha, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo, but in its heyday, this land bird had a population of more than 3 billion.
"Today, we just don't see numbers like theirs with other birds," explained Kyle Bagnall, manager of historical programs at the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan.
Bagnall, who is also Michigan state coordinator for the Passenger Pigeon Project, an initiative aimed to increase awareness of the bird, explained that the pigeons would gather in massive flocks, thousands to millions of birds all at once.
"A flock of passenger pigeons could fly overhead for three days straight," Bagnall said, "and they’d block out the sun."
This abundance of birds, however, didn’t last. The beginning of their end was human expansion into Michigan's land via the logging industry and population growth, which greatly decreased the passenger pigeons’ habitat.
"We’ve lost something like 50 percent of our wetlands here," Bagnall said. "Plus, Michigan used to be 90 percent forested; now it's more like 50 percent."
Shrinking habitat size left the birds with fewer places to live; habitat reduction is still a major threat to birds today.
"I’ve been a birdwatcher since I was 10 and, over the last 30 years, I’ve definitely seen less birds in general," Bagnall pointed out.
Yet, humans’ part in habitat destruction wasn’t the most specific cause of the passenger pigeons’ demise. People themselves played an even more direct role.
Passenger pigeons were known for "colonial nesting," birds gathered en masse, building nests right next to each other. In the late 1800s, one the most prominent areas for pigeon nesting was along the Lake Michigan shoreline; Petoskey was one of the birds' regular home bases.
The pigeons had long been hunted for food, often by farmers trying to keep the birds from eating their corn and wheat crops; a large flock could strip a field in just a few hours. Early on, the use of pigeon meat was moderate and prepared much like chicken: roasted, made into soup or baked into pie. Farmers would take them to town and sell them for 10 cents a dozen.
Then, passenger pigeon dinners started to become fashionable, and people started seeing dollar signs.
"It came down to profit motive because the numbers were so big," Bagnall said. "They could hunt the pigeons easily and get them to market quickly, packing them in barrels with ice or salt and supplying restaurants in Detroit and Chicago."
Hunting passenger pigeons at their nesting site was illegal; hunting wasn’t allowed within a half-mile of the nesting grounds.
"But, with the fine only set at $50 per violation, and so much money to be made from selling pigeons – you could get 40 to 70 cents per dozen for dead ones and $2 per dozen for live ones for sport shooting – no one paid attention to the law," Bagnall explained.
TRAPS AND TRICKERY
For the most part, the birds gathering in such huge flocks had kept them safe from predators, but the nesting of 1878 would be a terrible turning point for the pigeons.
In March, they arrived to roost in Petoskey by the millions. Their nesting site was estimated to be 40 miles long and between 3 and 10 miles wide. It was 150,000 acres full of nesting pigeons, with 10-50 nests per tree.
"The telegraph wire became alive as word got out that the nesting had started," Bagnall said. "And somewhere between 400 and 500 pigeon hunters headed north to hunt at the nesting site."
Hunters from a dozen states shot and netted the passenger pigeons for more than a month and a half that year. It was estimated they killed a billion birds during that time.
When the hunters weren't shooting the birds, they were setting 200-foot-long nets to trap them. They’d put down decoy birds, a real pigeon tied to a little platform – "that's where we get the term stool pigeon," Bagnall pointed out – that would lure the flock. The flock would land and the hunters would be waiting.
By the time summer had started, the slaughter was over. Few seemed to care except for a man named Professor H.B. Roney, who had led some friends up north in a wagon to try to combat the hunt. He met with little success, as it was only he and three friends against hundreds of hunters.
Roney wrote about the slaughter in American Field magazine.
"The hunters, of course, refuted it, saying that what they did was sustainable," related Bagnall, "but they were inventing facts, saying that the pigeons would just go nest somewhere else and there would be plenty of pigeons."
Unfortunately, this wasn’t true. Passenger pigeons nested only once a year, laying just a single egg. Since they aggregated the way they did, Petoskey was pretty much the end.
"People couldn't conceive of them ever being extinct because there were so many pigeons," Bagnall said. "But, they became extinct because of a perfect storm of circumstance: the height of the logging era taking away their habitat combined with constant harassment, and then constant hunting. It was a bizarre situation."
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
For nature lovers, the story of this real-life occurrence is a sad one for the passenger pigeons" sake, but even more so, it’s what it indicates for the future that makes for long-term sorrow.
"This bird is a cautionary tale of what can happen to any species – bird, mammal or plant. The rate of extinction right now is higher than anything in recorded human history," Bagnall said. "Look at the sharks who are endangered for shark fin soup; look what's happening to our bees. This is what can happen if we don’t care for our natural world. We risk losing it."
For those who argue that these instances are merely demonstrations of natural selection – simply humans triumphing over other species – Bagnall has some thoughts on that, too.
"Everything is connected," he said. "How do we know what will happen if one thing is gone? How will that affect everything else? Yes, we have the mental capacity to choose how we treat other things – great. So, we could decide to just destroy everything. How is that natural selection?" "The passenger pigeons’ story teaches us a lesson. Once something’s gone, it's gone forever."
For more information on the passenger pigeon, to share its story and information about the sustainable relationship of people to nature, visit passengerpigeon.org.