THE GREAT OUTDOORS: You didn't know Martha. And you never will.

A morning flight of black birds leaves the Alabama Swamp. Imagine the sight that passenger pigeons must have presented. (Douglas H. Domedion / contributor)  

She was an extremely rare gal, the last of her kind. This seems impossible because at one time others like her existed in a number that peaked at 4 to 5 billion in the early 1800s. Her name was Martha. She died in 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo, and is now a mounted specimen in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Martha was a passenger pigeon.

The passenger pigeon was much larger than the somewhat similarly plumed mourning dove. Adapted for speed and maneuverability in flight, it had a small head, a long tail, broad and pointed wings and large chest muscles that enabled it to fly long distances. The male was gray with iridescent bronze feathers on the neck and the female was duller and browner.

The passenger pigeon lived mainly in the deciduous forests of eastern North America and bred mainly around the Great Lakes. These birds could fly at speeds of 60 mph and migrated in enormous flocks as they searched for food, shelter and breeding grounds. They fed mainly on mast but also on fruits and invertebrates. They roosted and bred in huge numbers. They were very nomadic birds, thus their name.

Passenger pigeons traveled in flocks so large and dense they were frequently described as blackening the sky. These migrating flocks typically formed narrow columns that twisted and undulated, reportedly in nearly every conceivable shape. In 1866 one flock in southern Ontario was measured as 0.93 miles wide and 310 miles long, and it took 14 hours to pass!

Passenger pigeons chose roosting sites that could provide shelter and enough food to sustain their large numbers for an indefinite period. The time spent at one roosting site may have depended on food supply, weather conditions and the extent of human persecution. Roosts ranged in size from a few acres to 100 square miles. Some roosting areas would be reused in subsequent years, while others were only used once. The passenger pigeon roosted in such numbers that even thick tree branches would break under the strain. The birds frequently piled on top of each other’s backs to roost, resting in a slumped position that hid their feet. Dung could accumulate under a roosting site to a depth exceeding 1 foot sometimes.

So, what caused the downfall of this high population bird? Well, hunting is the often-given reason but there was more to it than that.

The passenger pigeon was an important source of food for the people of North America. Native Americans ate pigeons and tribes near nesting colonies would sometimes move to live closer to them and eat the juveniles. After European colonization, the passenger pigeon was hunted more intensively and with more sophisticated methods than the sustainable ways practiced by the natives.

This pigeon was of particular value on the frontier and some settlements counted on its meat to support their population. In general, juveniles were thought to taste the best, followed by birds fattened in captivity and birds caught in September and October. It was common practice to fatten trapped pigeons before eating them or storing their bodies for winter. Dead pigeons were commonly stored by salting or pickling the bodies; other times, only the breasts were kept and these typically were smoked. In the early 19th century, commercial hunters began netting and shooting the birds to sell as food in city markets. Once pigeon meat became popular, commercial hunting started on a much larger scale.

Passenger pigeons were shot with such ease that many did not consider them to be a game bird, and so untold numbers were shot not only for the meat but for the sport. In fact they were often live-trapped with nets and were used as living targets in shooting tournaments. In competitions, the shooters stood regularly spaced while trying to shoot down as many birds as possible in a passing flock. By the mid 19th century, railroads opened new opportunities for pigeon hunters. While previously it had proved too difficult to ship masses of pigeons to eastern cities, the invention of the railroad allowed pigeon hunting to become even more commercialized. By the 1870s there was a noticeable decline in the passenger pigeon population and new laws were drawn up, but too hard to enforce and too late.

Hunting was not the sole source of the problem. As forests were cleared and burned to provide agriculture lands for the growing country, an important part of the pigeons’ habitat was destroyed. Surprisingly, habitat loss continues to be a problem for much of our wildlife.

As the flocks dwindled in size, the passenger pigeon population decreased below the threshold necessary to propagate the species, until Martha was the only one left, and now she is gone too.

Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or woodduck2020@yahoo.com .

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