Juvenile, male and female passenger pigeons, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927)
One hundred years ago next week, a bird named Martha dropped dead in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last known passenger pigeon, a breed that just a few decades earlier had been the most numerous bird in America.
It was the first big wakeup call about society’s potential to destroy the environment. Extinction was no longer just about Do-do birds or other rare species; it could happen to a creature once so plentiful that it was both a major food source and a pest of biblical proportions.
The Cincinnati Zoo is marking the anniversary with a series of events. (More information: Ohiobirds.org). The keynote speaker is Joel Greenberg, who recently published the acclaimed book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Boomsbury USA).
Greenberg, a naturalist, author and lawyer, also helped start Project Passenger Pigeon, a non-profit organization to raise awareness of current extinction threats and to promote environmental sustainability.
Unlike today’s rock pigeon, which was brought over from Europe, passenger pigeons were native to North America. They ranged from Canada to Mexico, and the immensity of flocks once seen in Kentucky is hard to imagine. Alexander Wilson, America’s first ornithologist, wrote of an 1805 nesting area near Shelbyville that covered almost every tree for 40 square miles.
Passenger pigeons were so notable in early Kentucky that Project Passenger Pigeon reports 44 places in the state named for them, from Pigeon Roost Creek in Boyd County to Pigeon Hollow in Edmonson County.
John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and bird painter, wrote about flocks he observed in 1813 while traveling from Henderson to Louisville. During his journey’s last 55 miles, “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.”
Throughout the 19th century, many people reported similar events: sky-darkening flocks in the billions. When passenger pigeons chose to land, they could strip a field of crops or a grove of nut-bearing trees in no time.
But the docile birds had two great qualities: they were delicious and easy to kill. Long an important food source for Native Americans, a flock is said to have saved most of New Hampshire from starvation after a crop failure in 1781.
“The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river,” Audubon wrote of his 1813 sighting in Louisville. “For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons and talked of nothing but pigeons.”
So how did the pigeon population go from billions to zero in less than 50 years? Many questions remain, but scientists think one factor was widespread logging that destroyed forest habitat the huge flocks needed to reproduce.
But the biggest factor was excessive hunting. Once railroads and telegraph lines spread across the country, flocks could easily be tracked by commercial hunting crews and decimated.
About this time, sportsmen hunters began adopting the conservation ethic that has made huge contributions to wildlife and habitat preservation. But it came too late for the passenger pigeon. After the 1870s, populations plummeted.
The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Christian Church in Woodford County and retired executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said family lore held that her grandfather, Joseph H. Kemper, a champion marksman, killed one of the last passenger pigeons near Mt. Sterling.
“It was an accident,” Kemper said. “He was hunting doves. Daddy always said (his father) was sad about it.”
The journal of the Wilson Ornithological Society in 1925 quoted a Lexington Herald report saying Kemper accidently killed passenger pigeons twice, in 1892 and 1893, while dove hunting on Slate Creek in Montgomery County. Others reported similar isolated shootings around the country as late as 1902.
The last captive passenger pigeons were at the Cincinnati Zoo. By 1910, only Martha remained. Upon her death, she was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was skinned, stuffed and put on display.
This centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction is a good time to reflect on how little humans really know about nature. And to think about how society’s actions have consequences we often can’t begin to understand until it is too late.