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Nature Watch: Shocking demise of passenger pigeon holds lesson

There is a reason you are hearing so much about passenger pigeons in 2014. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the demise of that species. On Sept. 1, 1914, the final individual named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha had outlived two male companions by several years.

Among the recent books devoted to this remarkable species is “A Feathered River across the Sky” by Joel Greenberg. I call special attention to that book because Greenberg will be the featured speaker at the Buffalo Ornithological Society’s quinquennial banquet on Nov. 15. The story of the passenger pigeon is more than an account of an extinction; it is the story of the removal of the most numerous bird species in our country’s history within a period of a few decades.

A few weeks ago, I reported on large flights of purple martins and starlings. Although starling flocks are occasionally estimated to include tens of thousands of birds, those numbers are dwarfed by the flights of passenger pigeons. Here is some of the testimony to their numbers:

John James Audubon reported pigeons “in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before. The air was literally filled with pigeons: the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.” This flight continued for three days.

Greenberg tells about an episode in Columbus, Ohio. “One warm spring morning in 1855 the people of that city were going about their usual routines when they first noticed a low-pitched hum that slowly engulfed them. It grew louder, as horses and dogs began fidgeting. Then, just within the limits of vision, wispy clouds appeared on the southern horizon. As the watchers stared, the hum increased to a mighty throbbing. Now everyone was out of the houses and stores, looking apprehensively at the growing cloud, which was blotting out the rays of the sun. Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped on their knees and prayed. Suddenly a great cry arose from the south end of High Street. ‘It’s the passenger pigeons! It’s the pigeons!’ And then the dark cloud was over the city. Day was turned to dusk. The thunder of wings made shouting necessary for human communication. When the flock had finally passed almost two hours later, the town looked ghostly in the now-bright sunlight that illuminated a world plated with pigeon ejecta.”

Finally, Alexander Wilson estimated the size of “an almost inconceivable multitude” that spanned a mile wide and extended for some 240 miles, consisting of no fewer than three pigeons per cubic yard of sky. He calculated this single flock to include 2.2 billion birds.

So indeed there were many pigeons. How could that many birds be completely wiped out in such a short time?

Passenger pigeons had always been easy to kill. In pre-Columbian times, Native Americans visited their massive roosts to harvest squabs and eggs by the thousands. One such roost was near the Genesee River, another in Warren County, just across the border in Pennsylvania. But these harvests had virtually no effect on the overall population.

That came later as another host spread over the land – us. Marshlands and forests that had served as breeding areas were drained and cut. And market hunters killed the birds and shipped them to cities by the barrelful. From just two areas in Pennsylvania almost a million birds were harvested in one season. The species could not withstand this decimation.

The decline locally is recorded in Beardsley and Mitchell’s “Birds of the Niagara Frontier Region.” In 1828 and 1846, huge flocks were recorded in Rochester and Fredonia, but the sightings wink out with a final entry: “Sept. 28, 1899: Flock of 20 seen by F.J. Sager.”

Greenberg will flesh out this brief account in November. For further information about the banquet, call Michael Galas at 716-345-5419.