Sep 012013


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 si