Too Abundant to Disappear? Not Quite: The Lessons of the Passenger Pigeon

Too Abundant to Disappear? Not Quite: The Lessons of the Passenger Pigeon

During the mid-19th century, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird species in North America, if not the world, with a population believed to number in the billions.

Traveling in formations that might be impossible to imagine today, the bird was ubiquitous across New England, the Midwest and parts of Canada, darkening the skies over major cities and sometimes halting human activity in its tracks with the roar of hundreds of millions of flapping wings, says author Joel Greenberg, author of the new book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. In 1860, a British soldier in Ontario recorded a flock whose passage overhead lasted 14 hours.

“Forty years later, they were gone from the wild. Fourteen years after that they were gone from the planet,” Greenberg told an audience at Kroon Hall Wednesday night. “And they were gone because we destroyed them. We systematically, unrelentingly killed them.”

Greenberg was in New Haven as part of an initiative called Project Passenger Pigeon, which is using the 100th anniversary of the bird’s demise to call attention to the importance of conservation. In a discussion that was part ornithology lesson and part cultural history, he used a slideshow of historical images to illustrate how a bird that was once so common could disappear from the landscape so quickly. The event was sponsored by the Connecticut Audubon Society and F&ES.

Prized for its meat, the passenger pigeon was also easy to kill. Hunters developed innovative methods to kill hundreds, even thousands, of birds at a time, such as burning sulfur to asphyxiate them as they nested or using “stool pigeons” to lure them into nets. Many birds, however, were simply shot.

Because the bird’s populations had been so enormous, Greenberg said, most people assumed it was simply impossible for the passenger pigeon to ever become extinct. But as new technologies opened up national markets for the birds’ meat, and the loss of forests and wetlands deprived them of their habitat, their populations collapsed.

“We have to be vigilant,” Greenberg said. “If something as abundant as the passenger pigeon can be wiped out in four decades, something much less abundant can be wiped out like that.”

Ultimately, he said, the loss of the passenger pigeon was a critical event in propelling the first conservation movement of the early 20th century. Indeed, in some states there were attempts to save the bird before it disappeared. In New York, laws limited where they could be hunted. And in Michigan, lawmakers banned the killing of passenger pigeons altogether.

“That’s the good news,” Greenberg told the crowd. “The bad news? That was in 1897 and there weren’t any left.”