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Passenger pigeons gone, but not forgotten

By Bob Fala Outdoors Columnist

August 9, 2014

It’s the one-hundredth anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s exit stage left from the face of the earth. That’s as in the centennial of the extinction of one of the most, if not the most abundant bird on earth! It was so abundant and well known back at the time that its disappearance gave cause for a dramatic change in human attitude. The loss of this once abundant bird spurred the conservation movement like a jolt of lightning.


The various rivers, streams, towns, mountains, hollows and “roosts” owe their namesake to this fascinating bird, mostly for its strength in numbers, indicated as in the billions. Migrations by the hundreds of millions blackened the skies like a moving sea, northward in the spring and south in the fall. Its roosts were legendary and the cacophony of sounds reported as deafening, not to mention the trees and limbs falling under their collective weight.


Shooting, netting and you name it were employed to collect as many as possible for the market. They were easy picking per their colonial roosting and nesting habits. This commercialization and the widespread loss of preferred forested habitat to farmland are generally considered the primary culprits in the massive decline.


The passenger pigeons were good eating size at about three times that of the common mourning dove. None other than noted early conservationists John James Audubon and John Muir were fascinated by their abundance. Nevertheless, the pigeons were reported as gone from Kentucky by around 1890 and in Pennsylvania by the early 1900’s. Sensitive to their plight, there were some rescue attempts. Ultimately, they did not pan out.


Attempts at such at the Cincinnati Zoo dwindled to the point that only one of its kind remained. This kindred spirit named “Martha,” after Martha Washington lived to the ripe old age of 29 before succumbing. Her mounted remains still rest in peace there as a special exhibit. Martha, now as model, is perhaps the most photographed and drawn of any wildlife specimen in the history of the world.


None other than Theodore Roosevelt and the American public were appalled by the extinction of such a common bird in their very own lifetime. Scores of other wildlife species from deer and antelope to wood ducks and pelicans would soon be gone if something weren’t done. No coincidence, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed shortly thereafter in 1918. Ironically, many wildlife species may owe their existence to Martha and her species for effectively throwing a little cold water in the face of the human hoard.


On a lighter note, current figures of speech can be traced to the passenger pigeon. “Clay pigeons” get theirs from the once live versions that were used for target practice. Live decoy specimens were oft tethered to a t-shaped rod called a stool and hence the term “stool pigeons” is derived for humans that betray their brethren.


In memory of Martha and the passenger pigeon’s role, none other than Pennsylvania Game News and Kentucky Afield magazines feature full-color cover plate renditions and lead stories of the passenger pigeon on the upcoming September 1 Centennial Anniversary of the extinction. These features by Joe Kosack and Lee McClellan, respectively were referred to in the preparation of this account.


Perhaps only America’s later entry into World War I could top the headlining loss of the New World’s once beloved and bounteous bird.