The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant wild bird in North America and, perhaps, in all the world. It’s been said that more than a quarter of all the birds in North America in the 1800s were Ectopistes migratorius, the bluish bird significantly larger than our mourning dove and most closely related to the western band-tailed pigeon.
Many of us have read of the enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that once passed through the skies of northeastern America in the 19th-century, but it’s doubtful that anyone alive today has ever seen a live bird of this species, or ever will. The last “wild pigeon” died in 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Curious about the one-time presence of the passenger pigeon in this haunted neck of woods, I checked into a little history book devoted to my Town of Greenwood, New York. The book called “Pioneer Life in Greenwood, 1888,” by Dennis McGraw, echoes the demise of the pigeon in a way that many local histories have. McGraw wrote:
“On the upland the timber was mostly beech and maple. The maple was a great help to the people as from them we got our sugar and molasses. The beech used to furnish feed to fat our pork and to call pigeons to nest which supplied us with young “squabs.” They used to nest there in an early day, every bearing year. Once when at work in the sugar camp on the head of Bennett’s Creek, about five O’Clock in the evening, we discovered
pigeons in clouds; there were so many of them they fairly darkened the sky, and they kept coming until after dark when the tree tops were black with them. After nightfall we thought we could get a large quantity of them by falling the trees one against the other, but in that we were disappointed, for as soon as we struck a tree with an ax they would flutter off. We never got one pigeon that night, but what we got was better. They nested in the big marsh and we got any quantity of “squabs” as fat as butter.
People came from a great distance with wagons and barrels, and fell acres of timber to get them. It was a sight to see and one that we shall never see in this country.”
The passenger was destroyed by overhunting and habitat destruction. A migratory Ontario flock was described as “one mile wide, 300 miles long, taking 14 hours to pass one point” which, if accurate, could have accounted for most of the estimated 3.5 billion pigeons in North America at the time. But an avian holocaust was about to occur.
Pigeons were found to be good for feeding the nation’s slaves and poor. Massive mechanized hunting methods were designed. Typically birds flocked together for predator protection and lived in large colonies, sometimes building hundreds of nests in a single tree.
Nesting trees were burned, sometimes with sulphur; flocks were drawn down using a blinded “stool pigeon”; double-barreled shotguns might bring down 60 birds at a time. At one Michigan site, boys were encouraged to kill up to 50,000 roosting birds per day, for five months duration… You get the picture.
Studying local history can be enlightening, not only for the dour news about events such as this extinction, but for a wealth of entertaining and lighter news as well. Many people simply disregard the local. They have too much information at their fingertips already; they have busy schedules and bills to pay; the power mongers have stripped their lives of heritage and pride, etcetera. Local history seems far too precious and… unnecessary.
For the folks who care, however, it’s different. To get local and to take an interest in community and environment seems almost… revolutionary, in a sense. I think of the ideas, beliefs and feelings that eventually tore a new American spirit free from 18th-century tyranny.
But we’ve become a nation of extremely mobile and unsettled people with diminishing stakes in the past. We don’t have time for romantic ruminations, don’t have time to develop a sense of place or to see ourselves in an evolving time-frame. We no longer wish to know the old ways, or to see ourselves as part of a natural community with interacting and dependent parts.
Or do we? Have we learned some serious lessons this past century? No doubt we have learned a few, but… look at the news today– the same old wars and pestilence, the continued ravages of Industrial Age pollution….
The last wild passenger pigeon was killed by an Ohio boy with a BB gun in 1900.
The extinction finally aroused public interest in the conservation movement. The great Aldo Leopold would soon pay a public tribute to the bird on a formerly large Wisconsin roosting site.
The poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “The historical sense involves a perception not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”
And, finally, the politician Henry Kissinger weighs in on the topic with his well-known line, “It is not often that nations learn from the past, even rarer that they draw the correct conclusions from it.”