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, 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.
Fuller, Errol. Extinct Birds. New York, N.Y: Facts on File, 1988. Print.
Morris, Edmund. Theodore Rex. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.