“The Birds,” by Jonathan Rossen, The New Yorker, 1/6/2014. A book review of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight To Extinction, by Joel Greenberg.
So passenger pigeons went extinct. Who cares about flying rats? Gutter diners? Statue stainers? Bag lady buddies? But the article sucked me in, and there was way more to it than I thought.
The first lesson: The passenger pigeons that became extinct were not the familiar and universally scorned gray rock pigeons brought in by Europeans in the 1600s and still cluttering our cities today. Neither were they the noble pigeons so valuable in delivering tiny messages in WWI. (Those were carrier pigeons, really just gainfully-employed rock pigeons.) Passenger pigeons were a brightly-colored, native American species, and only found in America, once numbering in the billions. They were perhaps the most numerous bird species in the world. Yet in less than 50 years, their population dropped to zero. What happened? The short answer is that we ate them. (Burp!)
They once flew in huge flocks. As reported in Columbus, Ohio, in 1855:
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 to their knees and prayed.
John Audubon described a flock traveling at 60 mph that took three days to pass over. Another observer estimated a single flock contained over 2 billion birds. That single flock was eight times the estimated total population of every domestic pigeon on every street, telephone wire, and rooftop in every city in the world today (including Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square).
On September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon, a female, died in a Cincinnati zoo. How could this extinction happen so quickly? Their fatal error was in tasting good—and they were so easy to catch. You did not even need a gun. You could beat them out of the air with a stick, as Mark Twain recalled from his boyhood days in Hannibal, Missouri. They roosted so thickly in trees, branches would break and trees fall over, crushing them by the hundreds. Their droppings on the ground were a foot thick. They willingly flew into nets, enticed by a live decoy—a “stool” pigeon. Discovery of giant roosting grounds became festive occasions for entire families, each member having a specific role. One would shoot. One would knock babies from the nests. One would chase runaway fledglings. All would gather up the dead birds at the end.
People even made a game out of killing passenger pigeons. Trap shooting originally used live pigeons mechanically catapulted into the air. So many birds died on their way to the shoot that large numbers were needed.
But their extinction had contributing factors. They were huge eaters—one newspaper report said that a baby pigeon had “the digestive capacity of a half a dozen 14-year-old boys”—and needed a large supply of food that was dwindling. Pigeons lived on “mast,” hard nuts and acorns found in forests that were quickly being converted to farmland. Killing pigeons dramatically increased once their meat could be economically shipped from the countryside to the cities in the new, refrigerated railroad cars. They were served in the finest restaurants. And, finally, they lived by collaboration on an unsustainable, giant scale, much like ourselves, so that decline itself became a cause for further decline.
If eating so many pigeons seems strange, consider that we eat seven billion chickens per year today, far more than the pigeon population ever was. And the pigeons were free for the taking. In 1781, a large flock of pigeons saved a significant portion of New Hampshire from starvation after a disastrous crop failure. They seemed like manna from heaven, and we thought the supply would never end.