EVEN STUFFED and faded in a museum, the passenger pigeon is a beautiful bird. Alive it must have resembled only remotely the stubby scavenger that little old ladies feed, summers in the park. The pigeon we sustain is adaptive to the gutter and native to Europe. The pigeon we destroyed was a North American forest species, longtailed and graceful, with a slate-blue back and head and a reddish breast. The breast muscles were strong: the bird flew 60 miles an hour. Summering in flocks of, literally, billions in the Canadian hardwood wilderness, wintering in the southern States, the passenger pigeon fed on nuts and was good to eat — tastier than wild duck, they said. Some very old man may remember.
The big birds were easy to kill. A Maritimer once claimed to have bagged 132 with a single shot. Bill Loane, a professional pigeon hunter who died in 1907, caught more than 1,000 with one sweep of his net on the Toronto Islands. Dr. A. B. Welford, of Woodstock, Ontario, shot 400 pigeons one April morning in 1870 and ran out of ammunition. Then, he wrote, “I hid myself behind a fence and taking a long slender cedar rail knocked down many more as they came over.” The term “stool pigeon” derives from the practice of tying a tame bird, sometimes with its eyes sewn shut, to a stool over a net
baited also with grain. Professional pigeoners converged on nesting colonies where the killing was easiest. Helpless squabs starved in their nests by the million. You could buy a dozen pigeons for less than a dollar at any market in Canada. Our forefathers ate the breast meat and used the blue wings and feathers to fill potholes in roads.
Between 1850 and 1880 the billions became millions, the millions thousands. Tentative warnings by naturalists were ignored; the assumption was always that the flocks were somewhere else where the nut crop was better. In Canada the birds vanished first from the Maritimes. Dan Smith shot the last Manitoba pigeons at Lake Winnipegosis in 1898. That same year 20 birds gathered near Kingston, Ont., in what was the last authenticated nesting on the continent. In 1900 five were seen on Toronto’s Centre Island. Pacifique Couture made the last recorded sighting of a wild passenger pigeon, near St. Vincent, Quebec, September 23, 1907. He shot it.
The species could not adapt to captivity. A caged flock in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens had dwindled by 1909 to a single in-bred pair. Both birds were 24 years old. They mated but their egg did not hatch. Now ornithologists offered thousands of dollars for a live wild bird. There were none. The male died; the female, Martha, sickened. At 1 p.m. on September 1, 1914, in a cage in a room in a zoo, surrounded by scientists weeping with frustration, Martha died. The passenger pigeon was extinct. □
Extinction is the cruelest word, for it denies the immortality of succession. Whether you believe the scientists, who say that our progenitors were themselves a part of the animal kingdom, or the Author of the Book of Genesis, Who on the sixth day gave us dominion over every living thing, man has become the keeper of all other species. It is a responsibility we have consistently ignored. S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, believes that in 25 years almost all wild animals — three quarters of the species living today — will be extinct.
What kind of a world would that be? Superficially, not very different from today’s. The death of the 56 surviving whooping cranes would leave no one the poorer; and who among us has ever seen a timber wolf in the wild? But in a larger sense the death of the animals would mark the death of a good world in which their freedom was possible. It would end the animal’s role of reminding man where he came from — though it would point up, ominously, where he was going. Our descendants would find some of the past a puzzle. Blake’s tiger burning bright would be incomprehensible to a man looking at a picture in an old book. And the sly fox, he would think, was not very sly at all.
On the following pages, eight Canadian species that may soon be, like the passenger pigeon, extinct.
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