Thoughts about Passenger Pigeons


(This column was first published in the December 1, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


Walking through a neighborhood woodlot early on Thanksgiving morning I flushed a dozen mourning doves from a weed patch where they had been gleaning seeds. Their wings made that whistling "whe-whe-whe" as they flew off a short distance to perch on tree limbs. They bent to watch my progress along the trail below them.


As I walked on my mind turned to their larger relative, the passenger pigeon, once the most common bird in North America but since September 1914 extinct. In that month the final individual died in the Cincinnati Zoo.


What would it have been like, I wondered, to walk through these woods when pigeons roosted here during a mid-1800 migration?


When I returned home I sought an answer to this question and found that it would not have been a pleasant experience. Here is how Peter Kalm describes just such an occurrence: "The big as well as the little trees in the woods...became so filled with them that hardly a twig or branch could be seen which they did not cover; on the thicker branches they had piled themselves up one above another's backs."


He continues, "When they alighted on the trees their weight was so heavy that not only big limbs and branches of the size of a man's thigh were broken straight off, but less firmly rooted trees broke down completely under their load. The ground below the trees where they had spent the night was entirely covered with their dung, which lay in great heaps."


It is almost impossible to conjure up the numbers of those birds. Most of us have seen flocks of thousands of starlings and blackbirds. Those are nothing when compared to passenger pigeon numbers so I checked census records of the Buffalo Ornithological Society. I found that the maximum number of birds recorded in one day during migration across all of western New York and nearby Ontario is about a quarter million.


In 1832 ornithologist Alexander Wilson estimated a single flock of passenger pigeons at over 2.2 billion. That number is almost 9000 times that total of birds in our entire area.


Here is how Wilson reached his amazing estimate. He assumed the flock he saw to be a mile in breadth, although he believed it to be much more. Supposing it was moving at a mile a minute, as it was four hours in passing, he estimated that its whole length would have been 240 miles. He also assumed that each square yard contained three pigeons: as the flock was many levels deep, there must have been many more than this.


Audubon compared the ambient light as migrating pigeons passed over to an eclipse. Others described the noise they created as roaring like thunder, trains or even tornados.


What happened to that vast multitude of birds?


Alexander Bent tells us, "Its annihilation has been popularly attributed to various natural phenomena: epidemics, tornadoes, early deep snowstorms, forest fires, strong winds while the birds were crossing large bodies of water causing exhaustion and death by drowning." But he puts them in perspective: "These natural causes had acted for countless ages but the passenger pigeon survived, but when the white man arrived on the North American Continent, and especially after the pigeon became a commercial asset, its destruction was ordained. The evidence that man is responsible for the enormous destruction is voluminous and convincing."


Thank goodness not all stories end so sadly. We need only think of our Thanksgiving bird, the wild turkey, once completely extirpated from this region. Now these handsome birds are a rather common feature of our countryside.-- Gerry Rising