When my grandfather was growing up in Clarksville, Tenn., in the late 1800s, each spring he and his friends would eagerly anticipate the arrival of the passenger pigeons. When the cry went up, “the pigeons are here,” youngsters and adults alike would grab a croker sack and a club and head for the woods. Passenger pigeon pie was apparently a prized meal. Passenger pigeons were similar to mourning doves in appearance, but they had one important trait not shared by doves: communal nesting. That trait ultimately led to their downfall.
The abundance of passenger pigeons was documented by many people in various ways. John James Audubon reported an enormous migrating flock in Kentucky that was more than a mile wide and closely compact. It passed overhead during the daylight hours for three full days. He estimated that more than a billion birds were in the flock. The largest known nesting site for passenger pigeons was Petoskey, Mich., where almost every tree limb had at least one nest. Camp sites were set up each year by hundreds of people who exploited the communal nesting area. In 1878 the nesting colony was 28 miles long and 4 miles wide.
Thousands, maybe millions, of pigeons were sold during the late 1800s. Most passenger pigeons were used for food, but people also found other uses for them. More than 20,000 of the docile and cooperative birds were used as shooting gallery targets on the Coney Island midway. Passenger pigeons, despite their millions, dwindled away over the years as the onslaught by humans continued.
One way to capture pigeons was to lure them to a would-be feeding spot with a decoy, a tame pigeon sitting on a stool. Upon seeing the “stool pigeon,” passing flocks would land and be captured in a net trap. As many as 10 nettings of about 1,200 passenger pigeons each were made in a day, more than 80,000 being captured in some weeks. The actual toll was even greater when trapping occurred during the nesting season, because countless nestlings lost their parents and starved in the nest. Ultimately, numbers offered no protection from extinction, and environmental protection laws came too late for these birds. The last surviving passenger pigeon died early in the 20th century.
The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a commentary on a persistent and dangerous human attitude, the belief that we can exploit any natural system to the fullest without regard for long-term sustainability. Most unfortunately, that attitude did not die with the last passenger pigeon. Squeezing everything we can out of natural areas for financial gain may be the most costly feature of free enterprise. And the final payment may be far more costly than anyone anticipates.
By the late 1800s, some people, including a few legislators, realized that exploitation of the passenger pigeon should be curtailed. Sadly, that realization came too late to save the passenger pigeon. By the 1900s, laws were being passed to prevent wholesale killing and trapping of these once-plentiful birds. But the laws were not stringently enforced and they left too many loopholes. No one knows when or where the last passenger pigeon died in the wild; the last known passenger pigeon died in lonely captivity on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo.
As I write this while sitting on my back porch, I can see a hummingbird, two wrens and three cardinals. All three species are abundant in the region this year. But the saga of the passenger pigeon should serve as a cautionary tale, reminding us that when it comes to extinction, there is no safety in numbers.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.
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