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The Passenger Pigeon in WNY

Posted on May 1, 2014


Her name was Martha. She was a captive Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratoria) on exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo, and at 1:00 PM on September 1, 1914 she died of old age, marking the extinction of one of the world’s most extraordinary bird species.

Eyewitness accounts of wild Passenger Pigeons from the Colonial era through the mid-19th century always express awe, sometimes apocalyptic terror, at their incomprehensible numbers. The noonday sun would be blotted out, skies darkened for days, as millions upon millions of the birds raced overhead at 60 miles per hour. Forest roosting places would be left destroyed as if by tornado, mature trees stripped of branches and even toppled by their weight, dung covering the ground a foot deep.

Once by far North America’s most numerous bird – billions of individuals, comprising as much as 40% of the entire avian community – its population dropped to zero in less than 50 years. What on earth happened to cause such a rapid and complete demise? Like most events in natural history various causes and effects came into play, but essentially humans hunted them to extinction. The following account, in Elan Howard Eaton’s Birds of New York, is but a single instance of what was occurring throughout the Passenger Pigeon’s Northeastern and North Central deciduous forest habitat in the two decades following the Civil War:

“The last great pigeon nesting on New York soil evidently occurred in 1868, when millions of birds occupied the timber along Bell’s run, near Ceres, Allegany County, on the Pennsylvania line. The nesting tract was about 14 miles in length.”  Fred R. Eaton, who was there that spring, reported that, “Many were taken by netters and shipped from Olean to New York city by the carload. Great numbers of wagonloads were frequently seen coming into Olean. The whole tribe of Indians from the Cattaraugus Reservation moved to the nesting ground and remained for two weeks to capture pigeons. Professional netters who followed the pigeon nestings also captured them by tens of thousands.”

At that point the end was near. According to E.H. Eaton, “Wild pigeons evidently nested somewhere in western New York, during the 1880’s, or later,… as young birds were captured in 1889 by Mr. Kibbe at Mayville…” He also notes that in the summer of 1892 a small flock was observed in Chautauqua County.

Roger Tory Peterson, born in Jamestown, New York  in 1908, never saw a live Passenger Pigeon. In the 1934 edition of his Field Guide to Birds he notes,

“The Passenger Pigeon is now pretty definitely known to be extinct, but still the reports of individuals seen are frequently brought to our attention. In every case the Mourning Dove is undoubtedly the bird in question. The Passenger Pigeon was much larger, with a longer tail and longer wings and a blue-gray head. The head of the Mourning Dove is buffy brown with a black spot behind the eye. The rapidly beating wings of the Dove produce a whistling sound; the flight of the Wild Pigeon is silent.”

The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History has four Passenger Pigeon specimens in its Permanent Collection, three study skins and one taxidermic mount. Two specimens are particularly significant. The first is a male bird shot in Hingham, Massachusetts in 1860 by Isaac Sprague (1811-1895), an artist and naturalist best known for his botanical illustrations, who traveled with John James Audubon on his Missouri River expedition in 1843. Sprague’s Pipit, discovered on that expedition, is named for him. The specimen was presented to John D. Smith, owner of the collection later purchased by Roger Tory Peterson, by Isaac Sprague, Jr., the artist’s grandson, in 1930.

The other specimen of special interest is a male bird collected on October 15, 1879, in Dover Massachusetts, by William G. Smith (1841-1900), a prominent ornithologist who did much of his work in Colorado in the late 19th century.

The Passenger Pigeon specimens exhibited here inspire awe for reasons very different from those who experienced their presence in their living, natural state. Now, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the passing of the species we wonder at and, hopefully, learn from, the grievous mistakes of the past, resolve to be wiser, do better, and hope for a sustainable future.

Mark Baldwin
Director of Education