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The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

April 14, 2024

Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon (died 1914) - At Natural History Museum, 2015 (Smithsonian)

By Guy Scott

Once upon a time, eastern North America was home to enormous numbers of a bird species called the passenger pigeon or wild pigeon. These birds ranged all over the wooded area of North America, including southern Ontario. They were a very social bird and only congregated in flocks of thousands or more. It was estimated there were 3-5 billion passenger pigeons in North America at European contact. Their summer breeding range was the Great Lakes basin and Appalachian Mountains west to the Mississippi Valley. In the winter, they flew south to the Gulf of Mexico coast and the southern states of the USA. The passenger pigeon was built for speed, often attaining speeds of 60 miles per hour! At night, the pigeons roosted in hardwood forests, often filling single trees with hundreds of birds to the point they roosted on top of each other!

By day they foraged in huge flocks, looking for nuts, seeds, grains and insects. Because they foraged in such large groups, they were very noticeable and destructive! One Ontario flock in 1866 was described as 1 mile wide by 300 miles long and took 14 hours to pass! It was estimated to contain over 1 billion birds. This was likely a fanciful description, but the point was flocks were immense. If they set down on grain fields… well you get the point: Major nuisance! Farmers hated them with a passion. They were hunted as a pest, but they also tasted good! So pigeon hunting was a favourite (and useful) sport. George Beall, a famous diarist from Lindsay, describes one pigeon hunt in 1861:

“Deer were shot occasionally, but the greatest sport or shooting was the American or wild pigeon, now extinct. About the time the wheat was ripe, the woods would be literally swarming with them. Hundreds of birds in flocks would cross from one field to another offering an easy mark for the sportsman. Bags of 30-40 were not uncommon. The advent of the breech-loading rifle and their wanton and wasteful destruction, led to their complete extermination. Only a few years ago, I read of the death of the last known specimen (1914). The last pigeon I saw was in the summer of 1875 on the Curtis farm about 4 miles south of Lindsay.”

Were there passenger pigeons in Kinmount area? Well, Pigeon Lake was not named after a fish! The early pioneer stories are often silent on the northern limits of the country. This suggest the stories of mammoth flocks were not common to this area of central Ontario. By the 1860s, they were gone from this area, if they ever lived here. The closest relative was the Mourning Dove, still found in our area, in smaller numbers.

Passenger pigeons had been around southern Ontario for ages. The natives hunted them for food. But the numbers really took off in the early 1800s when European farmers began to open up the forest and add to the natural and planted food supply. But the Europeans also brought new hunting technology with them. The pigeons were easy targets due to their sheer numbers and lack of fear. The early settlers supplemented their diet with pigeon. But their damage to farmers’ fields earned them hatred among the pioneers who destroyed them as vermin. Tasty pigeon breast also led to commercial hunting in the early 1800s. Thousands of pigeons were harvested in a single day and sold from ‘wild game stores’ in the big cities. (Imagine the feather plucking!)

The passenger pigeon could be shot as they flew or foraged, but the favourite mass harvesting was done when they were roosting at night. Huge nets were built to trap birds and even alcohol-soaked grain was used to ‘disorient’ the drunken pigeons. An average shot gun blast netted 6 birds, but the record was 61 pigeons for one double-breasted blast. One big flock in Michigan was hunted to the tune of 50,000 birds per day for months!

Despite the mass slaughter, habitat destruction was a major reason for the race to extinction. The hardwood forests were also being slaughtered to the point there were no habitats large enough for the big flocks. Attempts to breed small, captive groups all failed. Once the flocks were reduced in size, they failed to reproduce and eventually all died. The last nesting colony in Ontario was reported in 1898. Ontario banned pigeon hunting in 1897. The last reported passenger pigeon in Ontario was a single bird seen in 1902. In 1909, the American Orthnological Society offered $1,500 for anyone locating a live bird or nest. The reward was never collected. The last tame passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914 at the age of 29. Where once there were may, now there are none.

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