Passenger pigeon

by Bruce Cherney (part 6)


Besides birds of prey, foxes, lynxes, raccoons, and weasels grew fat feeding on passenger pigeon eggs, nestlings, and squabs fresh from the nest on the ground. But the numbers these hunters took never made an appreciable dent in the colonies, unlike their competing human predators.

A.W. “Bill” Schroger wrote in The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction, 1955, that the hunters at the rookeries of Sheffield, Pennsylvania, and Petoskey, Michigan, shipped over 30-million birds from April to September 1878. At Petoskey, where the nesting site was 60 kilometres long and up to 16 kilometres wide, from 50 to 60 barrels a day, each containing 25 dozen, or 300 birds, were filled. The hunters fetched 35-cents a dozen, and one man with a net was capable of catching 50 to 60 dozen per day. One hunter managed to net 111 dozen birds.

The scale of the 1878 butchery caused a glut of birds being shipped to Chicago, wrote E.T. Martin in the article, What Became of all the Passenger Pigeons (Outing, 1914), resulting in many barrels of birds being dumped as unsaleable. Live birds were said to be arriving so fast in trains that pens couldn’t be fitted out to hold them. “Thousands were kept in small crates where thorough feeding and watering was impossible, until half had fretted themselves to death or else perished for want of food and drink.”

A party of four men at Petoskey was reported to have shot 826 birds in one day and only stopped when they became too exhausted to continue the carnage.

“Thus culminated the relentless persecution of many years in barbarous massacre where perished the great flights and which doomed the shattered and surviving remainders.”

Martin wrote that the once plentiful pigeons of Wisconsin had so diminished by 1881 that hunters were only able to net four or five dozen a day and sometimes none. “There was no more regular nestings, no large body of birds although acrons were plentiful.”

Still, reports continued into the early 1880s claiming that pigeons remained plentiful. On April 19. 1882, the Stevens Point Gazette reported that flocks were “miles in length literally clouding the sky.” Throughout that year, the slaughter continued at its relentless pace.

According to a June 3, 1882, American Field article, the driving of pigeon parents from nests caused by incessant shooting and clubbing, left “the young to perish from cold and starvation.”

The June 9, 1882, Turf, Field and Farm, estimated 2,138,400 pigeons were destroyed in Wisconsin at their nests.

The June 23, 1883, American Field, reported all the birds nesting in Missouri had been robbed of their young. “One man is said to have 60,000 young birds in his possession, and several others 10,000 each ...

“How long can the wild pigeon last?” the writer of the article wondered.

One man estimated that three more years of slaughter would finish the passenger pigeon off for good. His prediction wasn’t too far off the mark.

Newspapers noted that in Michigan, netting birds within two miles of nesting roosts was illegal, but no one was stopping the commercial hunters from continuing their relentless pursuit of the last bird to fill a pigeon pie.

“More pigeon hunters returned empty handed after an absence of four days. There seems to be more pigeoners than pigeons” (Tomah Journal, June 4, 1887).

“One of the strange things about this spring is the conspicuous absence of wild pigeons,” reported the New Richmond Republican on April 17, 1889. “We have neither seen nor heard of one so far.”

The last nesting of any importance was at Grand Traverse, Michigan, where more than one-million pigeons were noted. “Some 20,000 were taken here, to be butchered within a week at a trap-shooting tournament at Coney Island, New York,” wrote Moritz Fisher in Bird Lore, 1913.

Such events occurred in Canada, especially in Ontario, but were never as popular as those in the Eastern U.S. Reports from the 1870s in the Manitoba Free Press mention Winnipeg’s “Pigeon Club,” but the shooters used glass balls instead of live pigeons as targets.

But on July 6, 1878, the newspaper reported: “Pigeon shooting is now the rage, and there are more pigeons shots that pigeons shot.” Still, the passenger pigeons in question were the wild variety flying over the city and not the captured live birds used during organized trapshooting events in Eastern Canada or the U.S.

The trapshooters themselves had no notion — or were in a state of denial — that they were abetting the demise of the passenger pigeon, as their activity was divorced from the wild flocks that supplied their targets. They weren’t on-hand when the nesting sites were pillaged to obtain live birds to satisfy their bloodlust.

Manuals for trapshooting merely mentioned the flying characteristics of pigeons. Such manuals stated that pigeons were fast fliers and their flights were full of erratic swoops and dives, making them “better sport” than domestic birds raised on pigeon farms.

Making the activity even more popular among shooters and spectators was that money prizes were offered for bagging the most birds and betting was rampant.

What the elitist shooters in the city didn’t understand was that for every live pigeon brought to their tournaments, many died during shipping or weren’t judged suitable for targets and so would be killed. At a Utica event, only 8,000 of 10,800 birds  shipped arrived “in good condition” (Price). Other reports cited more than half a shipment of live pigeons dying in transit.

The trapshooters justified their alleged sport by saying that all pigeons killed ended up on the dinner plate, though not those birds that perished along the route to the event and were simply discarded as waste.

Not only were the birds shot while in the air, but in order to make them more pliable targets, they were subjected to other cruel practices, according to the Wilmington Commercial (reprinted in the Elk County Advocate, April 19, 1877). “The unititiated generally suppose that the pigeons are caught, caged and let off again in the vigor of life, to become the target of marksmen, but quite the reverse is true.”

The newspaper said it was an unequal contest as the birds were maimed and crippled for shooting by sticking pins through their toes and under their wings.

“The most cruel thing of all is spitting tobacco juice into the birds’ eyes, and the injection into them of a mixture of turpentine and cayenne pepper.” Once launched from a trap, the bird was unable to see where to fly, “and the extreme pain in its body makes it whirl round and round, in which condition it is shot by the marksman and put out of its misery.”

The slaughter engaged in by trapshooters was soon being judged as an activity too cruel to allow to continue.

Under the name Common Humanity, a letter writer to the Newport Daily News, September 10, 1875, said: “Other sports may be as bad as pigeon shooting, but that doesn’t affect the fact that pigeon shooting is wrong. It is not the wanton taking of life, but it is doing it in public, amid the applause of spectators. It is entertaining people with the sight of pain.”

An anology can be made with the “blood sport” in the Roman Colliseum and in other arenas across the empire, where bestiari (poorly equipped animal fighters, who were usually condemned prisoners) and venatores (better equipped professional killers) were pitted against wild animals to the applause of tens of thousands of spectators. But the lions, tigers and bears, armed with teeth and claws, at least had a sporting chance against their opponents, although their end was just as predictable as that of the passenger pigeon.

In another similarity to trapshooting, the need for animals for such contests in the Roman arenas — 9,000 in one set of games — killed off entire species; for example, the hippo disappeared from the Nile River and the North African elephant was completely wiped out.

The outcry against using live targets, especially by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, caused New York State to pass a law prohibiting “shooting any live pigeon, fowl or other bird or animal.” Other states enacted their own legislation to put an end to live pigeon trapshooting.

Whatever fate awaited the passenger pigeon — to be served up for dinner or shot for so-called sport — their demise was assured by the actions of their human persecutors.Whatever fate awaited the passenger pigeon — to be served up for dinner or shot for so-called sport — their demise was assured by the actions of their human persecutors.

“In 1896, the last remaining flock of Passenger Pigeons settled down to nest. All 250,000 were exterminated in one day by sportsmen who gathered to kill what was advertised as the last wild flock of the birds” (Extinction of the Passenger Pigeons, an article by Anthony Kendall, published on on June 28, 2006).

Stanley Temple, a professor emeritus of conservation at the University of Wisconsin, said that passenger pigeons might have even survived the commercial slaughter if pigeoners weren’t also disrupting their nesting grounds — killing some adults, driving away others, and harvesting the squabs.

“It was the double whammy,” said Temple. “It was the demographic nightmare of overkill and impaired reproduction. If you’re killing a species far faster than they can reproduce, the end is a mathematical certainty.”

It simply wasn’t necessary to kill the last nesting pairs to bring the species to inevitable extinction.

E.H.G.G. Hay told George Atkinson that the pigeons, which had been numerous in Manitoba in the 1860s, “began to show signs of decreasing about 1869 or ’70 and by 1876 they had all but disappeared ...”

Charles A. Boultben of MacGregor  told Atkinson that pigeons were numerous until 1882, “at which time we had to drive them from the grain stooks, but they soon disappeared and only stragglers have been noted since.”

(Next week: part 7)