Recently, as I was reading Denise Weimer's novel, A Counterfeit Betrothal, Book One from her Scouts of the Georgia Frontier series, I came upon mention of massive flocks of pigeons darkening the sky--so massive that a flock could take a full day to pass by. I referred to such an occurrence in one of my own novels, The Green Veil. Seldom in fiction have I read of one these flocks, although immense migrations of pigeons across America were very common in centuries past. In fact, as recently as a little over a hundred years ago, the Passenger Pigeon numbered the highest count of any bird in North America, where it lived exclusively. Although now extinct, over 3 BILLION passenger pigeons soared the skies at that time.
This morning, as I sit at my computer, my gaze flitting to the window from time to time where the only thing breaking up my vision of the vast, blue sky is a bare oak branch crossing my view, I try to imagine the site of such a flock darkening the horizon. People who lived to see such sites talked about clouds of birds blocking out the light of day so that it seemed as though night had fallen.
|Depiction of a shooting in northern Louisiana, Smith Bennett, 1875/Public Domain
Space doesn't allow me to go into the history of the passenger pigeon in detail, or the depth of the reasons the bird went extinct. I suppose that the image above explains a lot. For much the same reason as the near-demise of the American buffalo heard, these pigeons slowly disappeared off the scene. In fact, some say that they weren't even considered a game bird, since they were so easily shot or captured. A fellow who was a reasonably good shot could take six birds down with one shotgun blast, and a shot fired at a roosting flock could take down as many as sixty birds--or so it is said. Even the Native Americans harvested a large amount of birds prior to European expansion. Using nets, they could capture up to 800 birds at a time. They also killed juvenile birds at night, using long poles to take them, while being careful not to disturb the nesting adults, because they didn't want them to abandon their nesting grounds. Low-flying birds could even be killed with a well-aimed rock or stick.
|Pigeons being shot to save crops in Iowa, 1867
Eventually, traps were designed as well as nets for capturing the birds. Hundreds of thousands of birds were used for sport shooting as well as to be sold on the open market. Juvenile birds were considered the choicest for flavor, and their fat was used for butter. It's worth noting, since we in the states just celebrated Thanksgiving, that the huge numbers of passenger pigeons as game birds were second only to wild turkeys.
There were a myriad of ways man found to procure the birds. Most of them, as history notes, are rather sad. Even though these pigeons were the fastest of their kin, able to fly over 60 mph, they were still easy to pluck out of the sky. While, like the American Buffalo and the giant white pine, their supply seemed limitless and was treated as such, it wasn't, of course. The advent of railroads and telegraph lines (to report their movements) made bagging the pigeons easier than ever. Attempts at conservation that finally came, proved to be too little too late.
More factors than hunting alone brought about the extinction of the passenger pigeon, however. Depending heavily upon mast--the fruit of forest trees and shrubs, such as acorns and other nuts--the pigeons competed for their declining supply as deforestation combined with farm expansion spread across the continent. Predators and disease likely also played a role, especially since passenger pigeons were not prolific egg-layers.
The very last known passenger pigeon known as Martha, died in 1914. You can see her here in this brief Smithsonian film clip:
Your great-grandparents and mine likely either remember the pigeons that used to flock across the skies or at least they have heard the stories of them. I was happy to see them mentioned in Denise Weimer's novel. What's a tidbit of history you've read about lately that either surprised you or stirred a memory of something you'd once learned about?
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