More than a century ago, passenger pigeons were among the most numerous birds on the planet. Great Lakes explorer Samuel de Champlain reported “countless numbers” in the early 1600s, while 250 years later, the skies over Saginaw, Michigan, were darkened by a flock of pigeons that began at breakfast time and ended at dinner. Yet, by the early 1900s, a bird that once numbered five billion was extinct.
Bluish gray with black streaks, patches of pinkish iridescence on its throat, a soft rose breast, a white abdomen and red feet and legs, the adult male passenger pigeon was about seventeen inches long. The female was duller, paler and slightly shorter. Today, a mourning dove resembles the passenger pigeon in shape and coloring, although it is smaller and not as brightly colored than the passenger pigeon.
Passenger pigeons nested in the Great Lakes area, but went south for the winter. They lived in hardwood forests. Hundreds nested in a single tree, often breaking the tree limbs with their weight. On one occasion, 130 million birds reportedly nested in an 850-square-mile area in Wisconsin. But this need for large forests contributed to the birdsÔøΩ extinction.
As settlers and loggers felled the great forests of the Midwest, passengers pigeons moved to farmersÔøΩ fields, causing great damage. At the same time, the passenger pigeon became a delicacy. With no restrictions on the number of birds that could be taken, commercial hunters killed pigeons by the tens of thousands.
Because the birds were communal by nature, they were easily shot or netted at their nesting sites. Hundreds of thousands were killed or sold on the market. In 1878, millions of passenger pigeons nested near Petoskey, Michigan. For five months, 50,000 birds were killed daily. At about the same time, 7.5 million birds were being shipped annually to eastern markets from Van Buren County in the southwestern Lower Peninsula.
Not surprisingly, even the vast flocks of passenger pigeons could not survive such slaughter. By the late 1880s, the flocks that once darkened the skies were reduced to a few hundred birds. The last wild passenger pigeon died around 1900. The last survivor of the species, named Martha, died in a Cincinnati zoo on September 1, 1914.
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