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Passenger Pigeons

Aug 09, 2013

Passenger pigeons were often described as blackening the skies when their colossal flocks passed overhead. The pioneering ornithologist John James Audubon claimed to have seen a flock take three days to pass by. The birds appeared inexhaustible and were treated as such. Each year over the course of several decades, hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed and trapped. They were shot for sport, commercially hunted, and even captured for use as live trapshooting targets. However, by the late 19th century the great flocks had disappeared and the last confirmed report of a wild passenger pigeon occurred on March 24, 1900, in Pike County, Ohio. The bird had been shot and killed by a young boy.

Passenger pigeons likely remained in the wild, but all subsequent sightings were unconfirmed. One person who claimed seeing the now rare species was bird watching enthusiast and President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelts owned a rustic cabin in Albemarle County, Virginia, known as Pine Knot. During a stay in May 1907, Roosevelt saw what he believed to be a small flock of passenger pigeons, the first he had seen in twenty-five years. He had cataloged a specimen as a boy and was able to compare the birds to some nearby mourning doves. Roosevelt was confident in his sighting and wrote to naturalist John Burroughs about it. At Burroughs’ suggestion, Roosevelt was even able to collect at least one statement of corroborative evidence from an Albemarle County neighbor.

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to John Burroughs

Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to John Burroughs, May 23, 1907. From the Library of Congress Manuscript collection.

Roosevelt couldn’t confirm his sighting of wild passenger pigeons, but in 1907 the birds could still be viewed, at least in captivity. By 1910, only a single individual remained, a female named Martha, at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. She was likely the last passenger pigeon in existence, a rare case where the precise extinction of a species can be closely documented. Passenger pigeons passed into history with Martha’s death at around 1:00 p.m. on September 1, 1914.

Sources:

Fuller, Errol. Extinct Birds. New York, N.Y: Facts on File, 1988. Print.

Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

Posted by Grant Carlson on Aug 09, 2013 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (3)  |  Share this post

Pam said,

I found this page because I saw a bird who looked like a passenger pigeon in northern Wisconsin recently. At first I thought it was another mourning dove, which are very common here. But then I noticed the red breast and gray back. It had flown up to a group of smaller birds on a power line, and was watching my car approach carefully. As soon as I came too close, it flew off, otherwise I would have taken its picture. This was a rural 2-lane highway, and at first I didn't believe it and so I didn't even take notes on the date, time, or location. I've always wondered if pockets of them survived here and there. I assume it's possible. But getting a photograph to prove it... that's something that probably won't happen unless their numbers build up to something reasonable again.

Brian said,

@ Pam — I think it more likely that you saw a vagrant Band-tailed Pigeon (Columba fasciata). Their principal range is the Western U.S., but there's a much better chance that you saw one far afield in Wisconsin, than that you saw a Passenger P. anywhere outside a museum. Band-tailed P.s are, it happens, the Passenger P.'s closest relative. The breast of the adults has a blush color, and they are certainly bigger than Mourning Doves. While it is, indeed, hard to declare with absolute certainty that anything is impossible, the chance that a •breeding• population of Passenger P.s has survived in the wild, •unseen• for over a century, is so vanishingly small as to be as close to impossible as one could imagine. The last verified individual in the wild was, as noted above, shot in Ohio in 1900. Over the next two decades, there were energetic attempts made to locate survivors in the wild, with substantial rewards offered for verified reports. All came to nothing. Had occasional rumors of survivors since then represented real birds, rather than mistakes in identifications, one would think that, at some point, concrete evidence of surviving Passenger P.s would have surfaced. None ever has. And I cannot think of any way that a surviving group of Passenger P.s could have sustained itself, breeding successfully enough to keep their numbers viable, and yet totally escaping detection over such a long span of time. I would love to believe that you actually saw a Passenger P. But I would bet vast sums of money that, in fact, you some something else.

Gary said,

Just to add to the discussion: I have a hunting buddy down here near Nottingham Pennsylvania who also claims to have seen an exceptionally large mourning dove-looking muscular pigeon with a robin red breast hanging out in his front yard. He really knows his birds & this one matched the photos of the male passenger pigeon. Sadly, no photo. I encouraged him to keep his HD Go Pro camera with him at all times. Without real proof - no one is going to believe it. Even then, a feather would be preferred...

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