Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: Passenger Pigeon

"When one approaches the country of Illinois, one sees during the day, clouds of doves, a kind of wood or wild pigeon. A thing that may perhaps appear incredible is that the sun is obscured by them; these birds living only on the beechnuts and acorns in the forests, and are excellent in autumn; sometimes as many as 80 of them are killed with one shot."
N. Bossu while voyaging up the Mississippi, 1768.

 

The Passenger Pigeon, with its small head and neck, red sparkling eyes, long tail, and plumage that ranged from slatey blue on the head to grayish blue on the back, had an air of elegance. But appearances can be deceiving-- these now-extinct birds, although beautiful, were powerful flight machines. The Passenger Pigeons' massive breast muscles were attached to a deep keel and their long, pointed wings allowed for speed as well as aerial acrobatics. Their dashing and wheeling, dipping and darting earned the bird the title of "blue meteor." Audubon wrote of the Passenger Pigeon, "When an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone."

Passenger Pigeons were found only in eastern North America and were once the most abundant bird on earth, numbering billions. In Illinois, Passenger Pigeons were common summer residents in the north, especially along the Des Plaines River. Occasionally the birds would winter in southern Illinois.

Gregariousness was highly developed in these birds, so their activities --flying, roosting, resting, and nesting--were done in great numbers. When they landed on trees they formed "crowded rows," which caused branches to snap under their weight and their dung would "fall like hail." In Illinois residents were able to witness the great migrations of abundant Passenger Pigeons through the state, with great hordes flying overhead from late March to early April. A single flock could stretch for 300 miles--from Chicago to St. Louis--and take 14 hours to fly by.

The Passenger Pigeon had a varied diet. Staple foods during the fall, winter, and spring were acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts; during the summer soft fruits were eagerly sought. Their 
 

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A stuffed Passenger Pigeon on display at the Illinois Natural History Survey.

affinity for nut-producing trees made Passenger Pigeons an important component of the eastern deciduous forest. Unlike chickens, these birds never obtained food by scratching with feet, instead they overturned leaves and soil with their bills. To gather nuts they would land on the outer ends of oak or beech limbs, seize the nut in their bill, fan backwards with their wings, pull the nut from the tree, and swallow it whole.

Like the periodical cicada of North America and the wildebeest of African plains, the Passenger Pigeon's strategy for survival was overwhelming abundance. Nesting aggregations were so vast that local predators (hawks, raccoons, foxes, and opossums) couldn't wipe them out. Humans, though, were a different story, and by the beginning of the 20th century only a few captive birds were left. Man had succeeded where other predators had failed.

The arrival of great flocks of Passenger Pigeons always meant food for settlers, but until the advent of market hunting (harvesting the birds for faraway markets), local people had very little impact on pigeon populations. By 1840, market hunting was a major industry. The coming of the railroads allowed rapid access to major nesting colonies and provided a quick way to ship barrels of pigeons to the big cities. The telegraph informed market hunters of nesting colony locations. Hunters would attack a colony with guns, nets, saws, and poles, intent on taking as many birds as possible. Although many adults were shot, the commotion also caused nests to be abandoned; delectable nestlings were also part of the bounty. In nearly every breeding colony it was possible to harvest all the young, and this decimation happened year after year. Although destruction of the forests and overhunting are often given as causes for the bird's demise, the fact that the reproductive success of the Passenger Pigeon was nearly nonexistent for many years ultimately led to its end.

On March 24, 1900, the last wild Passenger Pigeon was killed in Pike County, Ohio, leaving the species represented by only a few captive individuals in zoos. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Aldo Leopold wrote of the Passenger Pigeon, "Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life." Like a meteor that burns brightly across the sky for a few hours or days, the Passenger Pigeon experienced great success as a species before its light dimmed and died when Martha quietly slipped from her perch--its legacy only a handful of historical accounts and a few stuffed birds with vacant stares.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology



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