Remembering the Passenger Pigeon, 100 Years Later

  • Carnegie Museum of Natural History educator Pat McShea displays a preserved Passenger Pigeon in the bird department's archives. Photo: J.S.Jordan

August 22, 2014

This marks the 100th year since the last Passenger Pigeon died. Passenger Pigeons once flew over Pennsylvania in flocks measuring in the billions. The birds were so numerous they would darken the skies, and sometimes brighten them when the sun shown through the space between the irridescent birds soaring overhead. 

"It's almost like the Grand Canyon came to your farm in Pennsylvania or passed over your city and if the sun was rising or setting during any of that time, the low rays of sun would pick up highlights on the birds' feathers and the flock would make a turn, the whole sky would turn color," says Carnegie Museum of Natural History educator Pat McShea.

The museum has a small exhibit called "Billions to None" commemorating the loss of the Passenger Pigeon. McShea points out that there are also other remembrances of the pigeon throughout the museum, including in its Iroquois exhibit in the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians. While American Indians consumed pigeons for food, as Europeans populated America, the world no longer welcomed Passenger Pigeons

“Habitat changed as our continent was settled,” McShea says. “The forests were cut down for farms.”

And the Passenger Pigeons swallowed up all the newly sown seeds on some farms, so, McShea says, there was an uneasy alliance between humans and the pigeons.

At the same time, the birds, McShea says, became an inexpensive and widely available food commodity, and with the advent of fast communication via the telegraph and rail transit, when a large flock was spotted, hunters could hastily arrive to a spot to kill large amounts of animals and ship them quickly to large markets.

Passenger Pigeons are often confused with Carrier Pigeons, which were used to deliver messages. The term "Passenger Pigeon" derives from the French for "bird of passage."  

The last captive Passenger Pigeon to die was named Martha, for President George Washington's wife and America's first First Lady. The pigeon passed away on Sept. 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

The last wild Passenger Pigeon was believed to be shot in the Columbus, Ohio, area by a farm boy in 1900.  

"We shouldn't judge those folks harshly," McShea says of people who shot the animals. "I think they lived in a different time. What that kid did happened to lots of people. Lots of people shot the last pigeon they saw." 

As McShea stands in front of a cabinet of extinct birds, one wonders if he doesn't get a little emotional. 

"It is alarming. Always we bring up the question, what action or what policies could have prevented this? It's not an easy answer."

Like all animals, Passenger Pigeons were part of the web of the ecosystem and their disappearance impacted other animals. 

Scientists believe one of those was the American burying beetle. 

"This is a very rare beetle that used to be abundant," McShea says. "It may have been adapted to exploiting dead young Passenger Pigeons under nesting areas." 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that carrion beetles, like the American burying beetle, recycle animal carcasses, ultimately returning valuable nutrients to the soil. The American burying beetle is now being reintroduced in some locations.

Images, from top: Illustration of the hunting of a flock, from 1875, the Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News. Illustration of billing Passenger Pigeons by John James Audubon; in life the pigeons stood next to each other on the same branch.