E. H. Forbush
The Last Passenger Pigeon,
|The Passenger Pigeon undoubtedly was one of the greatest
zoological wonders of the world. Formerly the most abundant gregarious species
ever known in any land, ranging over the greater part of North America in
innumerable hosts, apparently it has disappeared to the last bird. Many people
now living have seen its vast and apparently illimitable hordes marshaled
in the sky, have viewed great forest roosting-places broken by its clustering
millions as by a hurricane, and have seen markets overcrowded to the sidewalks
with barrels of dead birds. Those of us who have witnessed the passing of
the Pigeons find it hard to believe that all the billions of individuals
of this elegant species could have been wiped off the face of the earth.
Nevertheless, this is just what seems to have occurred. Even Prof. C. F.
Hodge, cheerful optimist that he is, after three years' search of North America,
practically gives up the quest, and acknowledges that the investigation has
not produced so much as a feather of the bird.
The editor of BIRD-LORE has asked me to write the story of the last Passenger Pigeon; but I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without giving an epitome of the causes which have brought about the extermination of the species. John Josselyn, in his "Two Voyages to New England" published in 1672, describes the vast numbers of the Pigeons and says, "But of late they are much diminished, the English taking them with nets." This seems to indicate that the extirpation of the species began within forty years after the first settlement of New England, and exhibits the net as one of the chief causes of depletion. From soon after the first occupancy of New England by the whites until about the year 1895, the netting of the Passenger Pigeon in North America never ceased. Thousands of nets were spread all along the Atlantic seaboard. Nets were set wherever Pigeons appeared, but there were no great markets for them to supply until the nineteenth century. Early in that century, the markets were often so glutted with Pigeons that the birds could not be sold at any price. Schooners were loaded in bulk with them on the Hudson River for the New York market, and later, as cities grew up along the shores of the Great Lakes, vessels were loaded with them there; but all this slaughter had no perceptible effect on the numbers of the Pigeons in the West until railroads were built throughout the western country and great markets were established there. Then the machinery of the markets reached out for the Pigeons, and they were followed everywhere, at all seasons, by hundreds of men who made a business of netting and shooting them for the market. Wherever the Pigeon nested, the pigeoners soon found them, and destroyed most of the young in the nests and many of the adult birds as well. Every great market from St. Louis to Boston received hundreds or thousands of barrels of Pigeons practically every season. The New York market at times took one hundred barrels a day without a break in price. Often a single western town near the nesting-grounds shipped millions of Pigeons to the markets during the nesting season, as shown by the shipping records. Nesting after nesting was broken up and the young destroyed for many years until, in 1878, the Pigeons, driven by persecution from many states, concentrated largely in a few localities in Michigan, where a tremendous slaughter took place. These were the last great nesting grounds of which we have any record. Smaller nestings were known for ten years afterward, and large numbers of Pigeons were seen and killed; but after 1890 the Pigeons grew less and less in number until 1898, when the last recorded instances of their capture occurred that can now be substantiated by preserved specimens. Since that time, there are two apparently authentic instances of the capture of the Pigeon recorded, one in Ohio and the other in Wisconsin, and my investigations have revealed a few more which have been published in my 'History of the Game Birds, Wild Fowl and Shore Birds.' Mr. Otto Widmann, who kindly undertook to look into the history of the Passenger Pigeon for me in the markets of St. Louis, states that Mr. F. H. Miller of that place, a marketman who has sold and handled large quantities of Pigeons, received twelve dozen from Rogers, Arkansas, in 1902 and, later, a single bird, shipped to him from Black River in 1906. No exact dates can be given. Mr. Glover M. Allen, in his list of the 'Aves, Fauna of New England,' published by the Boston Society of Natural History in 1909, records a specimen killed at Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1904-. A careful investigation leads me to believe that this is an authentic record, although I have not yet seen the specimen.
Passenger Pigeon on Nest The bird doubtless in some fear of the photographer
|It was mounted by Mr. J. Bert Baxter, of Bangor, and was seen by Mr.
Harry Merrill, who was perfectly competent to identify it. The specimen,
when mounted, was returned to the man who shot it, but Mr. Baxter lost his
record of the name of the owner. Mr. A. Learo, taxidermist, of Montreal,
informs me that a specimen was taken by Mr. Pacificque Couture in St. Vin-cent,
Province of Quebec, Canada, September 23, 1907. Mr. Learo states that he
has returned the bird to Mr. Couture, but I have been unable to find the
gentleman or learn anything more about the specimen. Therefore this may not
be authentic. I have investigated other statements which have been published
regarding recent alleged occurrences of the Passenger Pigeon in Canada, and
find that the birds taken were Mourning Doves.
Now for the last living Passenger Pigeon of which we have any information. David Whittaker, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, procured a pair of young birds from an Indian in northeastern Wisconsin in 1888. During the eight succeeding years, fifteen birds were bred from this pair, six males and nine females. A part of this flock finally went to Professor C. 0. Whitman, of Chicago University, and several individuals of it are figured in this number of BIRD-LORE. In 1904 Professor Whitman had ten birds, but his flock, weakened by confinement and inbreeding, gradually decreased in number. The original Whittaker flock decreased also, and in 1908 there were but seven left. All of these died but one female, which was sent to the Cincinnati Zoological Society. At that time the society had a male about twenty-four years of age, which has died since. The female in Cincinnati, so far as I know, is living still, and in all probability is the last Passenger Pigeon in existence.
Protected and fostered by the hand of man, she probably has out lived all the wild birds, and remains the last of a doomed race.
|Many attempts have been made by gunners, market men, and
others, to account for the disappearance of the Pigeons by attributing it
to some other means than the hand of man. Stories have been published to
the effect that the Pigeons migrated to South America or Australia; that
they were destroyed by parasites or disease, or that they were all drowned
in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Great Lakes, or in the Atlantic Ocean.
There is nothing in substantiation of these tales that would be accepted as evidence by any careful investigator. The species never was recorded from South America or Australia, and the other explanations of its disappearance are either the result of fertile imagination or rest on hearsay evidence or rumors. Undoubtedly many Pigeons periodically were confused by fog and drowned in the Great Lakes, and there are two possibly authentic stories regarding the drowning of large numbers of Pigeons at sea. None of these occurrences, however, had any permanent effect on the numbers of the Pigeons, though the destruction of the forests undoubtedly had some effect. There is evidence that large numbers of these birds went north from Michigan in 1878, and great flocks bred in Manitoba that year. As Pigeons were sometimes overwhelmed by unseasonable snow-storms in the breeding season in the United States, they must have been still more subject to them in northern Canada; and if they were driven by persecution to the far north to breed, they might have been unable to raise young during the succeeding summers. In "Michigan Bird-Life," Professor Walter B. Barrows gives his opinion that some such catastrophe as this was accountable for a large part of the great diminution in their numbers. This opinion is logical, though there is no direct evidence in support of it. Those who study with care the history of the extermination of the Pigeons will see, however, that all the theories that are brought forward to account for the destruction of the birds by other causes than man's agency are absolutely inadequate. There was but one cause for the diminution of the birds, which was widespread, annual, perennial, continuous, and enormously destructive-their persecution by mankind.
Every great nesting-ground known was besieged by a host of people as soon as it was discovered, many of them professional pigeoners, armed with all the most effective engines of slaughter known. Many times the birds were so persecuted that they finally left their young to the mercies of the pigeoners, and even when they remained most of the young were killed and sent to the market and the adults were decimated. The average life of a Pigeon in nature is possibly not over five years. The destruction of most of the young birds for a series of years would bring about such a diminution of the species as occurred soon after 1878. One egg was the complement for each nest. Before the country was settled, while the birds were unmolested except by Indians and other natural enemies, they bred in large colonies. This, in itself, was a means of protection, and they probably doubled their numbers every year by changing their nesting places two or three times yearly, and rearing two or three young birds to each pair. Later, when all the resources of civilized man were brought to bear against them, their very gregariousness, which formerly protected them, now insured their destruction; and when at last they were driven to the far North to breed, and scattered far and wide, the death rate rapidly out ran the birth rate. Wherever they settled to roost or to nest, winter or summer, spring or fall, they were followed and destroyed until, unable to raise young, they scattered over the country pursued every-where, forming targets for millions of shot-guns, with no hope of safety save in the vast northern wilderness, where the rigors of nature forbade them to procreate. Thus they gradually succumbed to the inevitable and passed into the unknown. Were it possible to obtain an accurate record of the receipts of Pigeon shipments in the markets of the larger cities only from 1870 to 1895, the enormous numbers sold and the gradual decrease in the sales would exhibit, in the most graphic and convincing manner possible, the chief cause of the passing of the Passenger Pigeon.
While we have been wondering why the Pigeons disappeared, the markets have been reaching out for something to take their place, and we have witnessed also the rapid disappearance of the Eskimo Curlew, the Upland Plover, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and the Golden Plover, from the same cause. Shall we awake in time to save any of these birds, or the many others that are still menaced with extinction by this great market demand? No hope can be held out for the future of these birds until our markets are closed to the sale of native wild game.