SOME DATA RE THE PASSENGER PIGEON
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In an earlier page on this total site, I said that a fine Mark C. Cassino image of a mourning dove reminded me of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorious, a bird none of us alive (or at least very very few of us) today have ever seen. On this page, and on any later pages, (so far page 2 only), I will accumulate images & data about the now long extinct bird. But THE site to visit on the subject of Passenger Pigeons is right here - Garrie L's splendid site with paintings, photographs, historical accounts & lots, lots more ~ & a site index low on the linked page. I will not try to compete with Garrie's site, but hopefully will present here some data & images that you might enjoy.
But my usual reminder. This page & the site to which the first link takes you, are designed for a 1024 x 768 screen setting.
So first up are some words the Webmaster wrote a few years ago when he was the editor of a Canadian bird club magazine & wrote an article about the Passenger Pigeon. Here is that article, slightly updated. Visitors might find it to be of interest. I hope that YOU do.
The Fate of the Passenger Pigeon ~ by Peter Searle
It is not often, I am sure, that the exact date of the extinction of a species is known. However, with the passenger pigeon, we know not only the date but the exact time! Martha, almost certainly the last passenger pigeon on earth, died in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens at 1.00 p.m. on Sep. 1, 1914 at the age of 29. Her still body was suspended in water, & frozen into a huge block of ice for transport to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. There her body was examined, her skin stuffed, and eventually placed on display. (But no longer, I understand!)
What an ending for a species that once accounted for between 25 & 40 percent of the entire landbird population of the United States! What an ending for a bird whose incredible numbers astound readers today as they did observers from the mid 1500s onwards.
One tends not to think of the passenger pigeon as a Canadian bird. But the first written reference to them was by Jacques Cartier who saw them on Prince Edward Island in 1534. The bird in fact ranged from southern Canada to northern Mississippi, from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean, a vast area once covered by a continuous deciduous forest which provided the acorns, chestnuts & beechnuts which were its prime food; a forest so big that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains without ever touching the ground.
Read with me the words of John James Audubon (1785-1851) as he describes a flock of passenger pigeons near Louisville, Kentucky in the fall of 1813 ...
"In the autumn of 1813 ... I observed the pigeons flying north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task that I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured on in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of the noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose... Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.
It may not, perhaps, be out of place to attempt an estimate of the number of Pigeons contained in one of those mighty flocks, and of the quantity of food daily consumed by its members ... Let us take a column of one mile in breadth, which is far below the average size, and suppose it passing over us without interruption for three hours, at the rate ... of one mile in the minute. This will give us a parallelogram of 180 miles by 1, covering 180 square miles. Allowing two pigeons to the square yard, we have one billion, one hundred and fifteen millions, one hundred and thirty six thousand pigeons in one flock ..."
We all have difficult with numbers of such magnitude - 1,115,136,000 birds in a single flock. And that flock is by no means the biggest!
W. Ross King reported in 1866 that at one time he had watched a May flight move northward from the U.S. into Ontario that contained an estimated 3,717,000,000 birds. The flock was one mile wide, continued to pass by for 14 hours and was an estimated 300 miles long!
So what happened? A great many factors doubtless contributed to their decline, but mass slaughter by pigeon hunters was the main reason. At a single colony in Michigan, 700,000 pigeons were netted in a month for market. Audubon describes an orgy of killing he witnessed in Kentucky. These were not isolated incidents. No species, however prolific, can survive continuous assault over decades & the passenger pigeon was no exception, further compounded by the fact that the bird seemed only able to exist in huge flocks. While the vast forest was cut for farmland, the hunting continued without abatement & the scattered groups of pigeons in the final years were unable to adapt & survive. It is believed that the last wild Passenger Pigeon was taken in Ohio on Mar. 24, 1900 & that individual is said to be in the Ohio State Museum.
The Passenger Pigeon resembled the mourning dove but was much larger. At 15/17 inches (with a tail of 8/9 inches) it was the longest member of the Pigeon family in North America. With its powerful muscles & streamlined body, the bird would cruise at 60 miles an hour & attain faster speeds if pursued. It's scientific & common names i.e. "Ectopistes migratorious" & "Passenger" refer to its widespread wanderings and north-south spring & fall migrations. It nested in long, narrow & colossal colonies - a colony 10 miles long by 3 miles wide would be typical with all potential nest sites in every suitable tree in that area occupied by a flimsy looking but strong nest of small twigs. The young would be cared for for about two weeks & then deserted en masse - the chicks fat & unable to fly would cry in the nest, drop to the ground, but within a few days take to the air.
The Passenger Pigeon is no more. Let us ensure that other creatures do not suffer the same fate.
Now the appropriate image to follow the above article would surely be John James Audubon's painting of the Passenger Pigeon. And here is an image of it along with part of an engraving of Audubon himself, both of which were, I believe, found on e-Bay. I do not know if the colour rendition of the painting is accurate but the image is very pleasing. I understand that the bird's true colours were much brighter that they are generally depicted.
Next, I offer you a pair of images attributed to famed wildlife artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927). On the left is his painting of both the passenger pigeon (top) & the mourning dove (below). A lovely image indeed that I would like to show you in the future in full screen. And beside it, is one of his preliminary sketches. I find it very appealing. The site from which the right image came was that of Cornell University which has a large collection of 'Fuertes' bird illustrations, as well as his personal papers. They have a database of 2,600 of his illustrations. Enjoy.
And next a composite image. The fine image at left is another work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes. The postage stamps are pretty & self explanatory, I think. The middle image? It came from the website of the Tulane University Museum of Natural History in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. But I had to flip it (to make the bird face to the left) as I believe it should correctly be. It is said to be an illustration from "Royal Natural History" by Richard Lydekker published in 1896.
And another composite image that certainly appeals to me. The fine image at left is by Charles Otis Whitman (1832/1842/1850's - 1910 which birth date is correct?) - a male bird in a characteristic pose. Re a copy of the 1919 print, available on e-Bay, the vendor stated: "This is one of the finest prints ever done on the Passenger Pigeon, a male from the posthumous works of C. O. Whitman 1919. This print is a reproduction from Whitman's book which was printed in very small numbers and in itself an exceedingly rare find. It is considered by many passenger pigeon aficionados to be among the best ever done of the species. Charles Whitman actually owned the last living passenger pigeons and gave the remaining birds to the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha the last of the passenger pigeons expired." Now the image on the right ~ what fun it is ~ is a child's drawing by Aileen who would seem to have been from Ohio. I do hope that you like it. We thank you Aileen!
To the Special Pages Index & Passenger Pigeon datapage 2.