Where Have All The Pigeons Gone?

John James Audubon (1785-1851), Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) Study for Havell Pl. 62, 1824. Watercolor, pastel, graphite, gouache, black chalk, and black ink on paper, laid on card. New-York Historical Society, Purchased for New-York Historical by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.62.

New York City would be an entirely different place without our pigeons (AKA Rock Doves, Carrier Pigeons). But for hundreds of years, a different pigeon dominated America’s landscape. The Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird on the North American continent, with estimates putting their population at three to five billion at their height. But on September 1, 1914 the last passenger pigeon died. What happened?

In 1824 John James Audubon painted these Passenger Pigeons in Pittsburgh. This watercolor will be on display in the upcoming exhibition, Audubon’s Aviary: Part 1 of The Complete Flock.  He also wrote on the hunting of the Passenger Pigeon in the Ornithological Biography:

Every thing was ready, and all eyes were gazing on the clear sky, which appeared in glimpses amidst the tall trees. Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of “Here they come!” The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent, as well as wonderful and almost terrifying, sight presented itself. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses were formed on the branches all round. . . .Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease, as they not infrequently quadruple their numbers yearly, and always at least double it.

Unfortunately, both this hunting and deforestation caused the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon just ninety years after Audubon painted them. According to Project Passenger Pigeon, an organization dedicated to educating people about human-caused extinction, their large flocks make them an easy target for hunting, and in the early nineteenth century many commercial hunters began selling them for meat in city markets for as little as a penny a bird. as little as a penny a bird. They were also eradicated as pests that endangered crops. Deforestation reduced their flock numbers, which had been key to protecting them from predators. By the late nineteenth century, their population was dwindling to the point where they could not continue their communal breeding habits. Despite preservation attempts, the last Passenger Pigeon, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.



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