Thursday, November 6, 2014

Passenger Pigeon 


On September 1, 1914 the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth passed into oblivion.  What a sad day for humanity!  "Martha" spent her last years living alone in the Cincinnati Zoo.  Her species declined from billions in about 100 years.  

Once the most populous bird in North America, if not the world, the combination of an abundant bird, the greedy market hunter, and the rampant destruction of hardwood forests, spelled the end of this magnificent avian species.  Today we are left with about 1500 mounts, skins and eggs in museums around the world.  Prior to 1800 the population was estimated to be 3 to 5 billion.  It was reported that in Michigan in 1878, 50,000 birds were killed every single day for 5 months.  This kind of slaughter occurred all over its range, supplying restaurants in the East.  No wonder that huge population dwindled to nothing by 1900.  

What does history tell us about this bird?  Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, in the late 1700s or early 1800s described the huge flocks as sounding like a tornado, like thunder, making so much noise it scared the horses.  John James Audubon reported a flock in Kentucky in 1813 as so large that when it passed, the sky was darkened like in a solar eclipse.  In 1866 in Ontario, a flock was reported that was 500 km long, 1.5 km wide and it took 14 hours to pass.

Female and Male Passenger Pigeon, mounts from Royal Ontario Museum

Male Passenger Pigeon, mount from Laval University

Juvenile, Male, Female Passenger Pigeon, Watercolor by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

These birds were beautiful to see, showed some very interesting flight dynamics and certainly played an important ecological role in North American ecosystems.  

The Passenger Pigeon migrated to New Brunswick annually to feed and breed in our hardwood forests.  Our earliest record comes from writings by Nicolas Denys (1672 ) who reported in 1650 many great flocks numbering over 600 passing over the area of present-day Miramichi City (The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America, 1908 translation).   Our last record was one killed at Scotch Lake, NB, near Fredericton in 1899 and reported by William H. Moore (A List of the Birds of New Brunswick, 1928).  There are mounts of this bird in the New Brunswick Museum and in the Grand Manan Museum.

It leaves a sick feeling in a naturalist's stomach to realize that that is all we have left of such a magnificent species.

[Material for this article including photos was taken from the Internet]

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