A Maclean’s Flashback

How We Massacred the Passenger Pigeon

Once these birds would blot Out the sun in Eastern Canada. Then the hunters went to work with guns and nets and a wanton fury. Soon the last passenger pigeon in the world died in a cage in Cincinnati

CHARLES NEVILLE October 15 1950
A Maclean’s Flashback

How We Massacred the Passenger Pigeon

Once these birds would blot Out the sun in Eastern Canada. Then the hunters went to work with guns and nets and a wanton fury. Soon the last passenger pigeon in the world died in a cage in Cincinnati

CHARLES NEVILLE October 15 1950

How We Massacred the Passenger Pigeon

A Maclean’s Flashback

Once these birds would blot Out the sun in Eastern Canada. Then the hunters went to work with guns and nets and a wanton fury. Soon the last passenger pigeon in the world died in a cage in Cincinnati


IN MAY, 1860, an English traveler and sportsman, W. Ross King, stopped off at Fort Mississauga, near Niagara, on a tour of Eastern Canada. One dawn he was awakened hurriedly by his servant. “The pigeons are flying, sir. You must see it.”

King wrote in his diary: “Hurrying out, I as amazed to behold the air filled, the sun bscured by millions of pigeons . . . a vast mass a mile or more in breadth and stretching before and behind as far as the eye could reach. Swiftly and steadily the column passed over with a rushing sound and for hours continued in undiminished myriads ... It was late afternoon before any decrease in the mass was perceptible . . . the duration of the flight being about 14 hours, from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. The column, allowing a probable velocity of 60 miles per hour, could not have I been less than 300 miles in length.”

King was most conservative in allowing for probable gaps in the flock, or maybe his arithmetic was faulty, for 14 hours at 60

mph would give the flock a length of more than 800 miles.

This was the passenger pigeon, a bird so numerous in pioneer America that flocks frequently kept the sun blacked out for hours at a time. When the pigeons passed over the beat of hundreds of thousands of wings became a roar of uninterrupted thunder and men had to shout into each other’s ears to make themselves heard. America had two great wonders that astounded travelers— Niagara Falls and the passenger pigeon.

The story of the passenger pigeon is one of the most incredible chapters of Canadian and U. S. history. They nested in colonies so vast that sometimes every tree in 100 square miles of forest would contain from 10 to 50 nests. Yet today not one of America’s once most spectacular bird survives.

This stupendous host of bird life was wiped out by man in a ruthless orgy of slaughter. The passenger pigeon’s powerful breast muscles which carried it through the air at 60 mph were tastier eating than wild duck. They were roasted, stewed, fried, made into soup, but most wound up in pioneer America’s

famous pigeon pie, with a piece of fat pork added to make gravy. City residents clamored for them and millions were sold at the markets for from 50 cents to $1 a dozen.

They were easy to kill. They loved their own company and clung together in flocks so vast that one hunter could sometimes bag thousands in a day. They were not intelligent and would flock by hundreds to grain bait under trap nets. They were carried to city markets by the barrel and wagonload. Discarded wings and feathers were used to fill mudholes in roads. One Michigan market hunter amassed $60,000 selling pigeons for 40 to 50 cents per dozen.

During the spring of 1859 one gunner bagged 3,500 pigeons within a mile of Ottawa. Bill Loane, a well-known Toronto market hunter who died in 1907, once caught more than 1,000 birds in a single haul of his trap net on Toronto Islands. In 1878, 500 gunners from all parts of Canada and the U. S. converged on one of the last great pigeon nestings at Petoskey, Mich., and shipped out an average of 50 barrels of birds per day from March to August.

The passenger pigeon became a sacrifice to man’s greed and stupidity.

It was the aristocrat of the pigeons, a bird clan which numbers about 500 species throughout the world. Most pigeons, though expert flyers, are stubby and short-tailed, but the passenger pigeon was a slim highly colored bird with a long tail that gave it grace and manoeuvrability possessed by few of its cousins. It was large, too, as pigeons go, usually more than 16 inches long (a little shorter than a crow, though slimmer and much more graceful). Slaty-blue on the back and head, reddish below, its plumage was sleek and thick and had an iridescent sheen.

C. A. Fleming, writing on the wild pigeon in the Owen Sound Sun-Times 20 years ago, recalled: “When the sun shone on them as they flew there was a perfect riot of color. The flash of brilliant color and the wonderful whir of their wings can never be forgotten.” But most of Fleming’s generation have joined the pigeons and today it is all but forgotten. Only men and women in their 80’s can now recall the pigeons’ glory. A handful of dusty museum skins alone remain as faded mementoes.

Passenger pigeon bones have been found dating back to the Pleistocene age, one million years ago. Thousands of years of ice didn’t faze it. But 100 years of civilization and the double-barreled musket purged it million by million and finally bird by bird until literally the last one was gone.

The passenger pigeon, unlike most migratory birds, was erratic and wandering, appearing by the million one year, missing entirely from the same area the next. These erratic movements were searches for food. The pigeon lived mainly on the mast of beechnuts, acorns and chestnuts and it had to go each year where there had been a good nut crop the year before. Alexander Wilson, father of American ornithology, once computed that a flock of two billion pigeons he saw would require 17,424,000 bushels of mast daily, allowing a conservative half-pint per bird.

It was a bird of the hardwood forests and ranged from the Rockies eastward to the Atlantic and north to the latitude of Hudson Bay wherever the forests grew. In Canada it was common in the Maritimes, southern Quebec, Ontario and in the wooded areas of southern Manitoba. In reduced numbers it overflowed into the conifer forests of Hudson and James Bays, northern Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Mackenzie Valley. It was rarely seen on the Prairies. It migrated in winter to the southern states.

Charles Fothergill, first postmaster at Port Hope, and Ontario’s earliest known naturalist, wrote in his diary in 1827: “As to computing the numbers that migrate into Canada, some conception may be formed from the fact that I have known 1,500,000 to pass over one small field in a single day. Similar streams are pouring from the south every 100 yards or less along a frontier of nearly 1,800

Men dropped work in the fields, women rushed outdoors, schools closed and all stood gazing in

astonishment as the mighty armies thundered overhead. Near Owen Sound, Ont., 70 years ago a 50-foot elm in the centre of a field was used extensively as an observation roost by passing pigeon flocks. Because prevailing winds blew from the west most of the tree’s branches extended to the east. The weight of thousands of pigeons roosting constantly on the tree’s one side caused it to bend over and grow in a half-circle until finally its top rested on the ground.

An old document describing Acadia (Nova Scotia) in 1662 says: “Pigeons abound in such

numbers that this year one man killed 132 at a single shot.”

Hundreds of references to the passenger pigeon lie

hidden in old and forgotten publications and diaries. Scores of them have been collected and preserved by James L. Braillie, ornithologist at the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology, Toronto, and by Margaret Mitchell, whose book, “The Passenger Pigeon in Ontario,” is rated as the finest study of the species ever published.

Alexander Wilson was once visiting a settler’s cabin in Ohio. He wrote: “I was suddenly struck with astonishment at a loud rushing roar, succeeded by instant darkness, which I took for a tornado about to overwhelm the house.” When the Ohio family noticed Wilson trembling in alarm they told him: “It is only a flock of pigeons.”

Sometimes exhausted pigeons flew so low over hilltops and lake cliffs they were knocked down with poles. Dr. A. B. Welford, of Woodstock, Ont., shot 400 pigeons before 10 one April morning in 1870, ran out of ammunition, then “I hid myself behind a fence and taking a long slender cedar rail knocked down many more as they came over.” In John Geikie’s “Life in the Woods,” a littleknown Canadian travelogue published in 1864: “I heard of a man who had to throw himself on his face to escape being hit by the pigeon flocks. I have seen bagfuls killed with nothing but poles.”

Most flocking birds separate at mating time but the passenger pigeon clung together in vast colonies even for nesting. Near

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Goderich, Ont., around 1870 a nesting colony covered an area 11 by 13 miles, 143 square miles in which practically every tree contained a few nests. Another in Elgin County, near Lake Erie, was 20 miles across. One in Oxford County in 1846 was reported as 10 miles square.

Sometimes so many nests were crowded into one tree that, as the young squabs (one only to a nest) were fed and grew fatter, limbs would break under their weight. The din of millions of cooing pigeons would be heard five miles away; horses driven close would be terrified by the noise and settlers would have to walk at their heads to keep them from running away.

The largest recorded passenger pigeon nesting was in Wisconsin, west of Lake Michigan, in 1871. It had a minimum length of 75 miles, a width of 10 to 15 miles, covered at least 850 square miles. One description states: “Every tree contained from one to 400 nests. We saw more than 100 trees that had fallen, by reason of the number of nests built upon their branches.”

It is one of the most bewildering stories in biological literature that a species so incredibly numerous could be wiped out to the last bird.

Pigeons were hunted as soon as the first white men arrived in America. After a winter of eating salt pork the arrival of the spring pigeon flocks was a happy occasion for settlers. Barrels of pigeon breasts, smoked or pickled in brine, were put away for winter use. The squabs, which became very fat before they left the nests, were melted down by the kettleful and the fat used as a substitute for lard and butter. Pigeons were such a regular dish that servants and farmhands sometimes stated in their employment contracts that they would eat pigeon only three times a week.

Traced by Telegraph

Hunting by settlers for food didn’t seriously affect the vast flocks. The pigeon’s death knell came about 1850 when professional hunters began killing thousands daily to keep the city markets supplied. At one time there were 5,000 professional pigeoners in Canada and the U. S. making $10 to $40 a day selling pigeons which rarely brought more than 50 cents a dozen.

The spreading of railroad and telegraph networks turned pigeon hunting into big business. Telegraph enabled hunters to keep tab on the flocks, railroads enabled them to converge swiftly on the colonies and ship out the slaughtered birds.

Most commercial hunting was done in nesting colonies where the pigeons were easy prey. As adult birds were killed millions of helpless squabs starved in the nests. Pigeons, driven from one nesting, would fly hundreds of miles, attempt to nest again, only to have the market hunters follow them.

Shooting and netting were the most common means of taking pigeons and the net took a far greater toll than the gun. An area the size of the net, from 10 to 100 feet square, was baited with grain and the net was staked down along one edge. The other edge was attached to two spring poles and rigged with a pull-string leading to a blind. The hidden hunter would release the poles and throw the net across the bait bed when a flock of pigeons was feeding beneath.

It was in pigeon netting that the term “stool pigeon” originated, now a

term commonly used for a criminal who informs on another. Netters frequently had a tame pigeon, sometimes with its eyes sewn shut, tied to a stool over the bait to attract flocks flying over.

Besides shooting and netting, many other methods of destruction were used. Farmers knocked squabs from the nests with poles and drove pigs into the woods to fatten on the young pigeons which fell.

Hunters carried sulphur pots under the nesting trees and when the pige' “'s were stupefied by fumes they w„*e knocked off the nests with poles or tossed down by boys who climbed the

David Clarke, of Stouffville, near Toronto, told Margaret Mitchell that a favorite method of capturing pigeons in his boyhood was to prepare a wooden platform, cover it with soft tar or wax, bait it with wheat and then pick up the pigeons when their feet stuck on the platform.

In the Hull area farmers selected a long straight limb on which dozens of pigeons roosted, attached a spring pole to the base of the limb and drew the pole back like a bow. When the limb was crowded /ith pigeons the pole was released and, as it snapped back, it would knock a score of injured pigeons to the ground.

He Got Them Drunk

One hunter in Michigan used grain soaked in whisky for bait. After pigeons gorged themselves on the intoxicating grain all he had to do was walk up and wring their necks by the hundred.

During the big Wisconsin nesting of 1871, 100 barrels (300 pigeons to the barrel) were shipped daily for 40 days. Every hunter had two guns. When one became too hot for reloading he dropped it and began using another.

Because rail service to the big markets was slow from Canada, pigeon hunting was not the big business here that it was in the U. S. But Canadian hunters got in on the bonanza whenever they could. Markets in Buffalo, Cleveland, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec and other Canadian cities were supplied mainly by pigeons taken in Ontario.

In 1830 huge flocks passed for days over Toronto (then York). William Dunlop describes the slaughter in his 1832 book, “A Backwoodsman.” “For three or four days the town resounded with one continuous roll of firing— every gun, pistol, musket, blunderbuss and firearm was in use. The police were on the alert and offenders without number were pulled up—among whom were members of the executive and legislative councils and crown lawyers and, last of all, the sheriff of the county . . .” (The offense, evidently, was shooting within town limits, for game had no protection then.) Dunlop adds that attempts to enforce the law were finally abandoned “and a sporting jubilee proclaimed to all and sundry.”

Laws Came Too Late

One Canadien boasted he brought down 99 pigeons with one discharge of his gun. Asked why he didn’t call it 100, he replied: “I certainly wouldn’t lie for the sake of one small pigeon.”

The great pigeon flocks declined gradually between 1850 and the 80s. The billions were reduced to millions, then thousands. A few scientists cried warnings that the slaughter must stop —and were ridiculed for their trouble. No one would believe that the decline was continent-wide—the pigeons had merely gone somewhere else where the nut crop was heavier.

When the flocks were so small that market hunters could no longer make a

living off them they insisted the pigeons had merely moved west and would return to the east again when the whim hit them. But the hunters waited in vain. Laws were hastily enacted to protect the pigeons. It was too late.

The pigeons disappeared first from the U. S. Atlantic seaboard and Canadian Maritimes but by 1890 only single pairs or flocks of 10 to 20 were seen anywhere. The last Manitoba passenger pigeons were shot by Dan Smith, at St. Boniface, in the fall of 1893, and at Lake Winnipegosis in April, 1898.

In 1898 about 20 pigeons nested near Kingston, Ont., the last authenticated breeding record for the continent. In 1899, 10 were seen near Orangeville; in 1900 five at Centre Island, Toronto. The last of the Ontario millions was one lone unmated pigeon seen by A. L. Young in 1902 at Penetanguishene.

There are three later records. One was killed in Maine in 1904, one in Missouri in 1906. The last known wild passenger pigeon fell on Cañadian soil. It was shot by Pacifique Couture, near St. Vincent, Que., September 23, 1907. But another seven years was to pass before the last caged bird died.

Although the main cause of the passenger pigeon becoming extinct was undoubtedly the ruthless slaughtering by market hunters at the nestings, many theories were advanced to explain the disappearance—most of them aimed at shifting the blame to nature. Storms over the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Great Lakes were mentioned; some held the pigeons had flown to Australia; some maintained that a forest fire in Wisconsin had wiped them out.

They Refused to Mate

People still ask how it was possible for man to kill them all. Actually, he didn’t have to. He merely killed most of them and nature did the rest. Every species has a minimum population below which it cannot carry on against the natural forces and diseases which keep its numbers in check.

The frantic efforts of aviary men to save the species in captivity is one of biology’s most tragic stories. Out of the millions of pigeons netted alive there was only one small captive flock of about 15 birds in 1900, all descended from a single wild pair captured in 1883. The continent’s best aviary men were put in charge of them, ornithologists watched anxiously as every effort was made to increase the flock.

But the pigeon was a pernickety creature in confinement. Usually they refused to mate; frequently when an egg was laid the pair would destroy it before the young bird hatched. Old birds died off more rapidly than young ones were produced. In 1909 only one pair remained in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens—a male, and a female called Martha, both 24 years old.

The final blow came the following year. The Cincinnati pair mated—but their egg didn’t hatch. Years of inbreeding had weakened the strain and the old birds—the world’s last passenger pigeons—were now sterile. A reward of several thousand dollars was offered for one Uve wild passenger pigeon to bring new blood into the strain. The reward was never claimed.

The male died. In 1914 only Martha remained. In August that' year S. A. Stephan, manager of the Cincinnati Zoo, noticed that Martha was beginning to fail. At 1 p.m. central time, Sept. 1, 1914, surrounded by scientists some of whom wept, 29-year-old Martha died. The passenger pigeon was extinct. ★