A stupendous slaughter

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Community Editorial Panel with John G. McKay

The first day of September this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of the last North American passenger pigeon. Martha, a captive pigeon that had never lived wild, was named after the wife of George Washington; she was found dead on the bottom of her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo at 12:30 p.m. She was 29 years of age.

Not to be confused with the homing pigeon, passenger pigeons were once the most abundant bird on the planet, their numbers being assessed early in the 19th century at between three and six billion.

They were a migrating bird, with the range of their habitat covering the entire eastern two thirds of the continent, with some flocks ranging as far south as Cuba in winter and the eastern Rockies in summer. They nested in Canada from the southern Northwest Territories to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

When the flocks moved north to their nesting grounds beginning in March, they darkened the sky from horizon to horizon for as long as three days, stopping only at night to roost in the vast hardwood forests. So many birds roosted in the branches of live oaks that their weight broke the trees and often uprooted them. Their major food consisted of acorns, beechnuts and chestnuts, and any other abundant seeds.

They were a beautiful bird, with the males coloured blue on the head and back, with a cinnamon breast and an iridescent neck, white under feathers and a black beak. Their eyes were brilliant scarlet and the tail comprised 12 feathers gradually lengthening toward the two central feathers nearly as long as the bird's body. Their wings were narrow and long and they were magnificent flyers, often reaching speeds of 96 kilometres an hour in hurried flight. It is recorded that the sound of a million pigeons leaving a nesting at once to forage for food was so loud that it was impossible for a person to hear a companion speak.

The pigeons suffered a fatal shortcoming in that they were good to eat. They were killed by the early settlers and the native Indians, but not in sufficient numbers to affect their ability to replenish the losses. Following the Civil War a commercial slaughter commenced in earnest. They were shot, trapped, netted in their millions, and beaten out of the air with long flailing poles where they flew low over hills. They were shipped east packed in barrels to the larger cities by the railcar load at the peak of the nesting season. They were plucked and packed as they were killed by the wagonload, with some of the buyers and shippers earning millions.

In what became known as the great Wisconsin nesting of 1871, it was estimated that 136,000, 000 pigeons nested in a area 70 miles long by 60 miles wide, and that upwards of 100,000 pigeoners worked the nesting for the 28 day duration of the nesting period, taking adults at first, and then the squabs after 14 days when they reached market size. All in all, it was a stupendous slaughter of a benign, beautiful bird.

The annual slaughter continued apace until, on 24 March 1900 on a small farm in Pike County Ohio, a 14-year old boy, Presley Clay Southworth, shot the last known passenger pigeon to be killed in the wild. It was a female feeding among the chickens in the farmyard.

With the death of the captive Martha 14 years later, the passenger pigeon passed into history, a victim of Man's greed and indifference, a deed from which no lessons have been learned in the blind, relentless pursuit of the dollar.


John G. McKay is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel

Organizations: North American, Cincinnati Zoo, Amherst News Community Editorial Panel

Geographic location: Cuba, Eastern Rockies, Canada Northwest Territories Newfoundland Nova Scotia Wisconsin Pike County Ohio

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Recent comments

  • noodle
    February 15, 2014 - 12:25

    What a crying shame. Thanks John for reminding us of this amazing bird and how its untimely end came about. We shouldn't forget what our ancestors did. Perhaps one day mankind will make a genuine effort to co-habitate in harmony with earth's other species... if it's not too late by then.