On this date in 1914, Martha, thought to be the world’s last Passenger Pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is one of those enormous ecological tragedies that should have sounded warning bells about preserving our natural environment, but it took another 50 years before the lesson really sunk in. The loss of the Passenger Pigeon is so horrifyingly stark because of the magnitude of the event over such a short period of time. The species lived in enormous migratory flocks until the early 20th century, when hunting and habitat destruction took their toll. One flock in 1866 in southern Ontario was described as being 1 mile (1.5 km) wide and 300 miles (500 km) long, taking 14 hours to pass over, and holding in excess of 3.5 billion birds (with a “B”). Less than 50 years later not one was left.
The Passenger Pigeon was much larger than the somewhat similarly-plumaged Mourning Dove. Physically it was adapted for speed and maneuverability in flight, with a small head and neck, long and wedge-shaped tail, and long, broad, and pointed wings. It had particularly large breast muscles that enabled it to fly for long distances. The male was about 15.4 to 16.1 in (39 to 41 cm) long, while the female was slightly smaller at 14.9 to 15.7 in (38 to 40 cm) in length. The long, tapering tail accounted for much of this length as it was between 6.9 and 8.3 in (18 and 21 cm) long. This pigeon had a carmine-red iris surrounded by a narrow purplish-red eye ring. The bill was black, while the feet and legs were a bright coral red in the male, slightly duller in the female, and just a dull red in the juvenile. The overall plumage colors are depicted below – juvenile (left), male (center), female (right) – in a painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
The Passenger Pigeon was one of the most social land birds. It lived in colonies stretching over hundreds of square miles and practiced communal breeding with up to a hundred nests in a single tree. At the height of its population of around five billion it may have been the most numerous bird on earth. A. W. Schorger believed that it accounted for between 25 and 40% of the total land bird population in the United States. Even today the Passenger Pigeon’s historic population is roughly the equivalent of the total number of birds that overwinter in the United States every year.
The Passenger Pigeon was nomadic and had no site fidelity, often choosing to nest in a different location each year. Pigeon migration was a spectacle without parallel. John James Audubon described one flock he encountered:
“I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose… Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.”
Others frequently described these flocks as being so dense that they blackened the sky and as having no sign of subdivisions. The flocks ranged from only 3.3 ft (1.0 m) above the ground in windy conditions to as high as 1,300 ft (400 m). These migrating flocks were typically in narrow columns that twisted and undulated, but they were reported as being in nearly every conceivable shape.
The Passenger Pigeon was an important source of food for the people of North America. Indigenous peoples tried to live near nesting colonies, eating only the juveniles. The juveniles were killed at night with long poles. They were careful not to disturb the adult pigeons, and instead only ate the juveniles as they were afraid that the adult pigeons might desert their nesting grounds. Away from the nests, large nets were used to capture adult pigeons, sometimes up to 800 at a time. Among the game birds, Passenger Pigeons were second only to the Wild Turkey in terms of importance for the indigenous population living in the southeastern United States. The birds’ fat was stored, often in large quantities, and used like butter. Archaeological evidence supports the idea that the indigenous population ate the pigeons frequently prior to colonization.
In the early 19th century, commercial hunters began netting and shooting the birds to sell in city markets as food, as live targets for trap shooting, and even as food for pigs. Once pigeon meat became popular, commercial hunting started on a prodigious scale. One method of capture was to hunt at a nesting colony, particularly during the period of a few days after the adult pigeons abandoned their nestlings but before the nestlings could fly. Some hunters used sticks to poke the nestlings out of the nest, while others shot the bottom of a nest with a blunt arrow to dislodge the pigeons. Others cut down a nesting tree in such a way that when it fell, it would also hit a second nesting tree and dislodge the pigeons within. Still another way was to simply set a nesting tree on fire, cooking the doves or collecting them as they tried to escape.
Nets were propped up to allow Passenger Pigeons entry, then closed by knocking loose the stick that supported the opening, trapping twenty or more pigeons inside. Tunnel nets were also used to great effect, and one particularly large net was capable of catching 3,500 pigeons at a time. These nets were used by many farmers on their own property as well as by professional trappers.
Passenger Pigeons were shot with such ease that many did not consider them to be a game bird. An amateur hunter could easily bring down six with one shotgun blast; a particularly good shot with both barrels of a shotgun at a roost could kill over 60 birds. They were frequently shot either in flight during migration or immediately after, when they traditionally perched in dead, exposed trees.
Hunters largely outnumbered the trappers, and hunting Passenger Pigeons was a popular sport for young boys. At a nesting site in Petoskey, Michigan in 1878, 50,000 birds were killed each day for nearly five months. The surviving adults attempted a second nesting at new sites, but were killed by professional hunters before they had a chance to raise any young. Neltje Blanchan documented that over a million birds could be exterminated at one time from a single flock, and that an equal number were left either wounded or orphaned before they could fend for themselves. Paul Ehrlich reported that a “single hunter” sent three million birds to eastern cities during his career.
By the mid-1800s, railroads had opened new opportunities for pigeon hunters. While previously it proved too difficult to ship masses of pigeons to eastern cities, the access provided by the railroad permitted pigeon hunting to become commercialized. After being opened up to the railroads, the town of Plattsburg, New York is estimated to have shipped 1.8 million pigeons to larger cities in 1851 alone at a price of 31 to 56 cents a dozen.
In 1857, a bill was brought forth to the Ohio State Legislature seeking protection for the Passenger Pigeon. A Select Committee of the Senate filed a report stating, “The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”
Conservationists were ineffective in stopping the slaughter. A bill was passed in the Michigan legislature making it illegal to net pigeons within two miles (3 km) of a nesting area, but the law was weakly enforced. By the mid-1890s, the Passenger Pigeon had almost completely disappeared. In 1897, a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature asking for a 10-year closed season on Passenger Pigeons. This was a futile gesture. Similar legal measures were passed and disregarded in Pennsylvania. This was a highly gregarious species – the flock could initiate courtship and reproduction only when they were gathered in large numbers; smaller groups of Passenger Pigeons could not breed successfully, and the surviving numbers proved too few to re-establish the species. Attempts at breeding among the captive population also failed for the same reasons. The Passenger Pigeon was a colonial and gregarious bird practicing communal roosting and communal breeding and needed large numbers for optimum breeding conditions. By the time that effective legislation to prevent hunting was put in place it was too late.
The last fully authenticated record of a wild bird was near Sargents, Pike County, Ohio, on March 22 or 24, 1900, when the bird was killed by a boy named Press Clay Southworth with a BB gun. Sightings continued to be reported in the 20th century, up until 1930. All sightings after the Ohio bird, however, are unconfirmed, in spite of rewards offered for a living specimen.
By the turn of the 20th century, the last known group of Passenger Pigeons was kept by Professor Charles Otis Whitman at the University of Chicago. Whitman studied these pigeons along with Rock Doves and Eurasian Collared-Doves. All of Whitman’s pigeons were descended from the same pair. Whitman and the Cincinnati Zoo attempted to breed the surviving birds, including attempts at making a Rock Dove foster Passenger Pigeon eggs. Whitman sent a female named Martha to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902.While Whitman had about a dozen Passenger Pigeons in 1903, they had stopped breeding, and by 1906 he was down to five birds.
On September 1, 1914, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her body was frozen into a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was skinned, dissected, photographed and mounted. Currently, Martha is in the museum’s archived collection and not on display. A memorial statue of Martha stands on the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo. A chilling story that, unfortunately, has not prevented repeat performances of over hunting and over fishing of species that people have blindly assumed were too numerous to be permanently harmed. We have been warned.
Even if there were a certain mock irony to it, I don’t think I should give a recipe here for pigeon pie or roast squab. Instead I will go in the opposite direction and present a vegan dish that, to the best of my knowledge, is eco-friendly and is aptly named. Following in the footsteps of my mentor, Robert Carrier, I keep a large stock of non-perishables in my kitchen for “emergencies.” In Great Dishes of the World he lists the contents of his emergency shelf, which includes tinned soups, meats , fish and vegetables, pasta and rice, and various condiments. Glaringly absent are dried legumes. I always have a great stock including lentils, split peas, and beans of all sorts. In the mix are always dried pigeon peas.
Pigeon peas are not well known in the U.S. and Europe but are a staple in Latin America and south Asia. Pigeon peas are both a food crop (used as dried peas, pea flour, or fresh green vegetable peas), and a forage/cover crop. In combination with cereals, pigeon peas make a well-balanced food. The dried peas may be sprouted briefly, then cooked, for a flavor different from the green or dried peas. Sprouting also enhances the digestibility of dried pigeon peas via the reduction of indigestible sugars that would otherwise remain in the cooked dried peas.
In India, split pigeon peas (toor dal) also called togari bele in Kannada and tuvaram paruppu in Tamil are one of the most popular pulses, being an important source of protein in a mostly vegetarian diet. In regions where it grows, fresh young pods are eaten as a vegetable in dishes such as sambar. In Ethiopia, not only the pods, but also the young shoots and leaves are cooked and eaten.
In some places, such as the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Dominican Republic, Panama and Hawaii, pigeon peas are grown for canning and consumption. A dish made of rice and green pigeon peas (moro de guandules) is a traditional food in the Dominican Republic. Pigeon peas are also made into a stew, with plantain balls. In Puerto Rico arroz con gandules is made with rice and pigeon peas and is the national dish. Trinidad and Tobago, and Grenada have their own variant, called pelau, which includes either beef or chicken, and occasionally pumpkin and pieces of cured pig tail. In the Atlantico department of Colombia the sopa de guandú con carne salada (or simply “guandules“) is made with pigeon peas.
I make my own version of arroz con gandules. The basic concept is to blend rice with pigeon peas and season them with an all-purpose flavoring mix called sofrito (sometimes recaito). Nowadays cooks in the Caribbean often use packaged and bottled seasonings. I prefer to make my sofrito from scratch. This dish usually has some meat in it, but mine is vegan. This dish goes well with fried, sliced plantains, and a mixed salad of tomatoes, avocados and sliced onion drizzled with olive oil.
Pigeon peas and Rice
*1 green pepper with ribs and seeds removed
*1 medium onion peeled and quartered
*1 scotch bonnet pepper (or other hot pepper)
*2 cloves garlic peeled
*5 stems fresh cilantro
*½ tsp dried oregano
*2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
*1 tsp salt
1 cup cooked pigeon peas (or canned)
1 ½ cups long grain rice
3 cups water
1 tbsp capers plus their vinegar
1 lime cut into wedges
Put the ingredients marked with an asterisk into a food processor and pulse until they are finely chopped and blended, but not a complete pulp. This is your sofrito.
Thoroughly wash the rice by placing it in a colander or sieve and running it under cold water until the water runs clear. Set aside.
Heat a Dutch oven or heavy lidded pot over medium heat. Add the sofrito and sauté gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the washed rice and sauté another 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the water and pigeon peas, bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Do not lift the lid during the cooking process.
When the rice has cooked through and absorbed all the liquid you should hear it start to sputter. Remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes.
Uncover the pot, stir in the capers and vinegar, and serve with lime wedges.
Serves 4 to 6