A Parable of the Passenger Pigeon

Recently (4th Oct) in referring to a WWF report on the dramatic collapse in the numbers of our fellow creatures on earth, an Irish Times editorial talked about biodiversity loss and our consumerist culture: ‘the human family appears intent on spending down its natural resources to the last fish and the last tree’.

Plus ça change …. It’s an old story and the sorry extinction of the Passenger Pigeon in north America is a pertinent case study. Professor John Wilson Foster’s Pilgrims of the Air, launched recently in Trinity College, is a fascinating account of this extraordinary bird and its sudden demise at the end of the nineteenth century.

Nature Abundant
The Passenger Pigeon (Ecotopistes migratorius), so called because of its wandering, unpredictable migratory behaviour, ranged in enormous flocks from Canada to Florida, probably accounting for more than a quarter of all birds in North America. As a metaphor for the environmental impact of colonial settlement in the sixteenth, and population explosion in the nineteenth century, its extinction has many lessons. When European settlers made first contact with North America, they encountered an environment teeming with wildlife of incredible abundance. The awesomeness of American Nature in the eyes of travellers from the Old World is well represented in accounts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Even before permanent settlement, the vast codfish shoals off Newfoundland were well-known to Europeans. By the 1630s French missionaries in Quebec were talking about une infinite de Tourtelles (‘turtle doves’), feeding on wild raspberries, strawberries, acorns, grapes and the seeds of the forest – oak acorns, beech mast, red maple and American elm seeds, hazel and alder. The core range of the wild pigeon corresponded with the eastern and southern deciduous trees, and ultimately its fate was bound up with the fate of the forests.

The posture Thoreau noted, captured by K. Hayashi in Whitman's Orthogenetic Evolution in Pigeons (1919)

The posture Thoreau noted, captured by K. Hayashi in Whitman’s Orthogenetic Evolution in Pigeons (1919)

Seventeenth-century reports talked of the thunderous frightening noise when the pigeon flocks flew over, in numbers that blotted out the sun for hours at a time. A Swedish naturalist in 1749 talked about the ‘incredible multitudes’ and huge nestings of wild pigeons, with trees cracking and falling under the weight of the birds. Generally speaking the native American population, small in numbers, maintained a symbiotic relationship with the pigeon population, with seasonal ‘harvesting’ of young chicks (squabs) for food, usually refraining from killing the adult birds. The settler population was more indiscriminate in its hunting. In late eighteenth-century Quebec, for instance, ‘during the shooting season, pigeons are on every table.’ Neighbours were given armfuls of pigeons for meat and feathers for pillows. In Connecticut’s pigeon mornings in late September, enough pigeons were shot before breakfast to fill a haywagon to the brim.

Wilson Foster suggests that the pigeon population exploded following intensive European settlement which reduced the populations of other species that competed for the food supply of the pigeon … grey squirrels, fox squirrels, turkeys, deer, raccoons, not to mention the Native Indian populations – resulting in an ‘unsustainable population explosion of the birds’.

In 1810 Alexander Wilson, a Scottish immigrant, watched a ‘prodigious’ procession of wild pigeons which took six hours to pass over him. An Enlightenment man, he attempted a ‘scientific’ bird count – by timing their passage overhead. Estimating the speed of the birds and the time it took to pass over him, he concluded the column of birds had been 240 miles long. Assuming the column was conservatively a mile in breadth with 3 birds per square yard, he calculated 2,232,072,000 passenger pigeons – probably an underestimate as it didn’t take account of the multiple strata of birds in the flock. Significantly, at the same time Wilson witnessed the great crowds of west-bound settlers on the move down the Ohio river and its tributaries – ‘caravans of Kentucky ‘arks’ laden with settlers and commodities … migrating like birds of passage to the luxuriant regions of the south and west’. (p120). Later, a watcher in the 1860s calculated 120,000,000 birds per hour passed him. One flock in 1866 in southern Ontario was described as being 1 mile wide and 300 miles long; it took 14 hours to pass and held in excess of 3.5 billion birds.



As white settlements exploded across the Midwest and west after the American civil war, wild pigeon nestings were turned into scenes of carnage: one nesting in Michigan in 1878 was estimated to be 850 sq miles – the birds wrought havoc in the woods, and the human population, both native and settler, wrought havoc among the flocks, killing thousands upon thousands – one man bagged up to 1200 pigeons with a double-barrelled shotgun before breakfast. Scenes of horror were described when wagons arrived, and axemen felling trees bringing thousands of birds crashing down, with the ground covered with eggs and birds on which hogs were fattened. Large nets were used to catch thousands of birds.

By the later nineteenth century there was wanton slaughter of the birds, unlike the more sustainable ‘harvesting’ by the Native Americans in earlier times. Commercial trappers arrived on the scene also to catch and sell the carcasses – in the 1870s there were c5,000 professional pigeoners killing for a livlihood. These were one section of a much more extensive army of ‘market gunners’ who, regardless of breeding season, hunted down and killed every ‘game’ bird they came across for skins, plumage and meat. As well as the wild pigeon, birds like egrets, terns, grebes were being hunted to extinction in various states. Swallows, robins, waxwings, bluebirds, woodpeckers fell to fashion wear in their thousands – small owl heads, for example, were used as adornments for fashionable hats.

In May 1871, 100-200 barrels (30,000 to 60,000 wild pigeons) were being received daily at La Crosse on the Mississippi. At the height of the slaughter in 1869, 189,000 birds were being shipped daily by train from Hartford Michigan. The period between 1870 and c1900 was called the ‘Age of Extermination’ by an American zoologist, so great was the slaughter of native wildlife in America (and that might also include ‘human’ slaughter in the ‘Indian’ wars). This coincided with the most intensive immigration from Europe and the explosion of eastern cities which became enormous food markets for pigeon and other meats.

Wilson Foster refers to the ecological shock of this settlement expansion – ‘wilderness and agricultural land were built on … sending shock waves ever outwards … as farmland became suburbs and wilderness became farmland’ (p173). Rail networks expanded linking city and town. By the1860s railtrack between Maine and Georgia expanded from 9,000 to 30,000 miles – essentially covering the effective range of the wild pigeon. Ranging out from the railroads, homesteaders staked their claims to quarter sections of land, clearing woods and wilderness which rapidly diminished the passenger pigeon sites.

The telegraph which accompanied railroads speeded up information diffusion: ‘telegrams flew faster than the pigeons’ (p180) who became fugitives chased from nesting to nesting by pigeoners, who could arrive within an hour of news of the locations of large pigeon roosts. Tons of slaughtered birds were then shipped out by the same railroad.

By the mid-1890s, pigeon populations were collapsing with wild flock sizes numbered in the dozens rather than the hundreds of millions (or even billions). Then they disappeared completely, except for three captive breeding flocks spread across the Midwest. About September 1, 1914, the last known passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died at Cincinnati Zoo. She was roughly 29 years old and had never laid a fertile egg.

Wilson Foster suggests that the pigeon’s extinction was due to the ‘fenceless emptinesses’ of America where almost everything in nature belonged to freeborn Americans, and where the invisible distances beyond the horizon were assumed to boast infinitely more of the same. The only reminders of the former existence of the Passenger Pigeon today are placenames thoughout North America. For example, there are at least fourteen places in Virginia with pigeon in the name: Pigeon Top Mountain, Pigeon Roost Creek, Pigeon Branch, Pigeon Hill, Pigeon Roost Branch, Pigeon Run, Pigeon Roost Swamp, Pigeon Creek.

The unfortunate Mutton Bird (Providence Petrels) suffered the same fate as the Passenger Pigeon, in this case at the other end of the world in Norfolk Island off the east coast of Australia. The first British penal colony, it was settled with convicts (many of them Irish) from 1788 onwards. In the harsh unforgiving environment, the prisoners were saved by the Providence Petrel, or Mutton-bird, so-called because it tasted like mutton. A Royal Marines officer called them ‘flying sheep’. Never having seen men before, it was easily caught. The prison quartermaster kept a daily tally of the kill: 170,000+ were slaughtered in one three month period in 1790… averaging of 4 birds per person per day. By 1796 they were thinning out; eight years later they were almost gone. By 1830 they were extinct, like the north American Great Auk (1844), or the dodo in Madagascar in the seventeenth century. ‘Mutton-birding’ continues as a traditional and now regulated seasonal ‘harvesting’ of petrel chicks for food and feathers in islands of New Zealand and Australia .

Lessons for us

What does the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon tell us about our relationship with Nature? It certainly helps to bring into focus a sort of postcolonial re-appraisal of the way Environment and Nature were treated historically – where the earlier unquestioning, exploitative perspective has been opened up for review in the light of what we now know about ecosystems, for example. Many now draw attention to the ethics and morality of our historical relationship with colonial environments, perspectives which would have been inconceivable in the the age of big game hunts and destruction of wild nature in the nineteenth century and earlier. Environmental ethics and concepts of sustainability today are manifestations of this re-thinking.

The main themes in European imperialism and western economic colonialism from the 1600s, was ‘civilisation’ of cultural and human landscapes, and ‘improvement’ of natural landscapes through linear exploitation of their natural resources. ‘Improving on Nature’ was a driving force in the Age of Modernity from the 1700s when native flora and fauna (and peoples too) were to be exploited, extirpated or eliminated. These attitudes were given political expression in the nineteenth-century US in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny – a sort of providentialist imperative to expand territorially, politically, economically. And inevitably the environment and Nature were to be tamed and broken-in by the waves of western settlers. As Richard A Bartlett noted in the The New Country: a social history of the American frontier 1776-1890‘The pioneer carried with him the vision of western man, and as he surveyed the treeless sea of grass with bison grazing on it as far as the eye could see, he contemplated nothing but improvement resulting from changes he proposed to make … to remove the bison and replace those ugly, prehistoric beasts with manageable bovines was nothing but improvement’ (pp. 263-4)

The free-ranging herds of bison, which for generations had lived in balance with native populations of north America, were incompatible with the waves of immigrants who were claiming and taming the wild landscapes of the prairies. Like the Passenger Pigeon their numbers too were almost obliterated in much the same wanton slaughter. Elizabeth Custer, wife of the notorious General Custer of Wounded Knee fame, wrote in 1864 that she had been on a train “when the black, moving mass of buffaloes before us looked as if it stretched on down to the horizon. Everyone went armed in those days and … [w]hen the sharp shrieks of the train whistle announced a herd of buffaloes the rifles were snatched, and in the struggle to twist around for a good aim out of the narrow window the barrel of the muzzle of the firearm passed dangerously near the ear of any scared woman who had the temerity to travel in those tempestuous days…. “ (p.3).

This ‘improvement’, taming, claiming, fencing and ‘breaking-in’ of wild Nature were concepts which were polar opposites of the native/indigenous perspectives on the environment. In hunting and gathering economies generally the relationship with Nature was usually sustainably nurturing and cyclical (as opposed to unsustainably linear and destructive). So one sees repeated bafflement, exasperation, disbelief in the voices of the dispossessed (insofar as they were heard or listened to) as they watched the destruction of their environment – captured dramatically in the movie Dances with Wolves from the novel of the same name by Michael Blake.

Bison skulls awaiting shipment 1880s.

                                            Bison skulls awaiting shipment 1880s.

A Native American Crow chief by the name of Bear Tooth attacked the wanton destruction of the environment and wildlife by his enemy, as retold by Dee Brown in the wonderful Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: ‘ Fathers, fathers, fathers, hear me well. Call back your young men from the mountains of the bighorn sheep. They have run over our country; they have destroyed the growing wood and the green grass; they have set fire to our lands. Fathers, your young men have devastated the country and killed my animals, the elk, the deer, the antelope, my buffalo. They do not kill them to eat them; they leave them to rot where they fall. Fathers, if I went into your country to kill your animals, what would you say? Should I not be wrong, and would you not make war on me?’ (pp.138-140).

At the eleventh hour, some bison were saved from extinction and today Yellowstone National Park has the largest population of plains bison (about 4,000), and Wood Buffalo National Park has the largest population of free-roaming wood bison (about 10,000).

Patrick Duffy


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