The Sad History of the Passenger Pigeon
The Passenger Pigeon was once one of the most numerous bird breeds in North America and quite possibly the entire world. There were once so many passenger pigeons that when a flock would fly by the entire sky would darken. It is said that their flocks could measure up to a mile long and 3 miles wide. Once the Europeans arrived in America however those numbers began to radically change.
The Passenger Pigeon was slightly larger than our pigeons and doves of today, but it was only a very small difference. Their bills were short but thin and they ate what most birds typically eat which were nuts, fruits, and insects. They were not a bird that was a danger to humans. They had long slender wings and a long pointed tail that was about 9 inches long the wings and tail helped these birds to sour at speeds likely in excess of 70 mph. Of course the only reason we know what these red breasted birds looked like these days is because there were some stuffed specimens from way back when.
Since there were so many passenger pigeons when they nested in groups they would form entire colonies. Obviously since they were so plentiful humans decided that they were perfect for hunting and that the passenger pigeon population could be controlled by hunting. So when the European settlers started to arrive in about the year 1700 they began to turn the passenger pigeons natural habitat in to farm land, roads and towns, therefore forcing the passenger pigeons in to smaller spaces. That is about the time that people started to catch the pigeons for food. After all they were not hard to catch, and they were numerable, and of course free to catch and cheap to buy.
The hunting and trapping of the pigeons continued up into the 1850’s and that is when people started to notice that the birds were no longer plentiful and that they were becoming more and more rare. In order to try to save the species and a popular food source some humans decided to try and keep the birds in captivity. There was a disease at the time that was affecting birds called Newcastle disease. Nobody is entirely sure if the pigeons in captivity were actually sick from the disease or if they were just unable to breed in small groups. They also did not eat well in these small groups.
By the year 1900 it is believed that the species was nearly entirely gone. It is thought that the last known passenger pigeon died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio. They had named her Martha after Martha Washington. There is a statue and memorial of and for Martha at the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha was stuffed and mounted and now resides at the Smithsonian Institute.