Passenger Pigeon “drawn from life by J. J. Audubon”


The above John James Audubon illustration is how I’ve ‘encountered’ the Passenger Pigeon, and barring some amazing discovery in the wild or a breakthrough in the cloning lab its the only encounter I’m likely to have. The last Passenger Pigeon, a female named Martha, died September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. The last sighting in the wild was a decade before. A century before that, the birds were estimated to total in the billions, and flocks took days to pass overhead. And in a hundred years they were gone.

What happened? The story I learned growing up was that hunters were to blame, having overhunted and harvested the species to extinction. I don’t know if its a sign of my maturity or that of the scientific community, but the answer is a little more nuanced now. Yes, widespread hunting had an impact, but there were other factors too. The bird’s native habitats, the eastern forests, were being depleted of trees. The idea of wildlife conservation was in its infancy and too little was too late for the species. And it may be the species was already in decline for other reasons – recent research suggests the bird’s numbers waxed and waned over the centuries, and the falloff in population unfortunately took place when harvesting the birds was reaching its peak. And the pigeon’s social nature didn’t help – the birds only reproduced when gathered in massive rookeries, so the birds in captivity never bred.

This last trait is what speaks against the hope of hope – occasional comments that perhaps a small flock of Passenger Pigeons is alive in secluded locations such as the Ozarks. The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, another extinct species, was allegedly sighted a decade ago in the same remote area. Breeding populations, and the lack of same, are what undermine the dream of zoologists and bird-lovers. So it appears my encounter with these birds is going to be the same as yours – reading about them and looking at photos and paintings. But I will keep hope in my heart as I go outside, that perhaps on a hike I’ll see something I’ve only read about in books.