Painting of huge flock of passenger pigeons

100 Years Without the Passenger Pigeon

August 25, 2014 | by Elizabeth Wason

Humans hunted billions of passenger pigeons into extinction, but LSA’s Museum of Natural History is bringing the birds back (into our consciousness, at least) here on campus and throughout North America.

Census data represent imprecise figures, even for human populations and household pets. But it’s oddly possible to count exactly how many passenger pigeons exist in the world today. Zero. They disappeared into extinction 100 years ago, when the very last passenger pigeon took her very last breath in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

But 1,548 passenger pigeons linger in the drawers and displays of private collections, museums, and research institutions. LSA’s Museum of Zoology preserves 32 of these remaining birds, and four of them can be viewed in the current exhibit at LSA’s Museum of Natural History, A Shadow Over the Earth: The Life and Death of the Passenger Pigeon, which is open to the public through January 4, 2015.

At the center of the exhibit, a single stuffed passenger pigeon perches on a branch in a glass case. This is not the way we would have seen it when it was alive. During most of the 19th century, as many as six billion passenger pigeons flew in flocks so massive they blotted out the sun and chilled the air. The pigeons traveled at a clip of 60 miles per hour, but even at that pace, a flock could take several days to pass overhead. When they stopped to feed or nest, the sheer volume of birds could cause entire trees to crash to the ground in splinters. One of their last and largest nesting sites, near Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878, covered an area that would have fit more than 400,000 football fields. The birds relied on such large numbers for protection—predators could eat their fill of pigeons and not even make a dent in the flock.

Print of passenger pigeons feeding each other.

In 1839, the U-M Library made its first purchase: John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The Board of Regents paid an enormous $970 for the original four volumes—more than $23,000 in today's dollars. The purchase signaled the Regents’ intent to make U-M an excellent institution for higher learning.

Passenger pigeons did not migrate, but rather led a nomadic lifestyle in their native stomping grounds of eastern and midwestern North America. The birds traveled long distances to find the huge amounts of food required to sustain their numbers. They liked beech and oak trees best because the trees produced enormous amounts of nuts in irregular cycles, a mode of plant reproduction known as mast seeding. But the pigeons weren’t picky; they ate seeds and berries from a variety of plants, along with earthworms, insects, salty soil…and sometimes crops grown by farmers.

Pigeons vs. People

The unusual habits of passenger pigeons often benefited Native Americans and early colonists. The immense flocks produced excrement in layers like foul-smelling snow, two or three feet deep, which fertilized large areas of land for years to come. When cultivated crops failed due to drought, frost, or insect pests, flocks of pigeons could save entire communities of people from starvation. Flying long distances at high speeds, the pigeons developed meaty muscles—a good source of protein in soups and pigeon pies. Their feathers made a nice stuffing for mattresses, too.

But the boon of birds could get ugly for farmers. Livestock pigs had nothing to eat when passenger pigeons left the forest floor barren of edible seeds. And if the pigeons couldn’t find food in the forest, they would gorge on nearby crops. Some farmers painstakingly seeded entire fields, only to find that pigeons exploited the easy pickings; the invention of the underground seed drill in 1860 combated this very problem.

More new technologies spelled death for the passenger pigeon as a species. The portable saw mill made it easier to clear-cut forests for lumber in the 1870s, which meant fewer feeding and nesting sites for pigeons. Railroads extended throughout the country by the end of the Civil War, facilitating the shipment of unbelievable quantities of dead passenger pigeons to a national market. The telegraph network expanded at about the same time, enabling hunters to keep tabs on flock movements, follow the birds, and hunt them incessantly.

From Billions to One

Sustained hunting disrupted essentially every passenger pigeon nesting attempt for three decades leading up to the 1880s. Entire flocks were slaughtered, adults abandoned the nests prematurely, and pigeon parents died when they couldn’t offload the crop milk that they’d otherwise feed to fledglings. It didn’t help that the birds laid only one egg per nest.

Billions of passenger pigeons became dozens by the 1890s.

By 1910, Martha, the very last passenger pigeon, occupied a lonesome cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. She died on September 1, 1914.

Martha the Passenger Pigeon

When Martha died in 1914, the entire passenger pigeon species died with her. For safekeeping, zookeepers used a 300-pound block of ice to transport Martha’s body by train to the Smithsonian National Museum, her final resting place. The last Carolina parakeet died in Martha’s old cage at the Cincinnati Zoo four years later, marking another avian extinction.

The Museum of Natural History created its exhibit to honor the memory of passenger pigeons on the centenary of their extinction. The exhibit panels were written and designed by LSA Museum Studies minor Kaisa Ryding (U-M ’14), an alumna who majored in the U-M Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. The museum has made the exhibit panels available online for free, in an effort to share resources with other institutions and extend its educational mission beyond the U-M campus. The open distribution provides smaller institutions with a professionally designed, low-effort, low-cost exhibit, according to the museum’s assistant director for exhibits, Eugene Dillenburg. So far, more than 30 institutions in the United States and Canada are using U-M’s panels in their exhibits and customizing the displays with passenger pigeon artifacts from their own collections. Dillenburg adds, “A standard traveling exhibit can only be in one place at one time, but widely distributed panels allow multiple institutions to have exhibits simultaneously.”

The Museum of Natural History and its campus partners likewise will share unique items with visitors in the museum and across campus through January 2015. On view at the museum is a hunting net, designed to catch up to 600 passenger pigeons at once. A contraption nearby illustrates how hunters could attract quarry using “stool pigeons” as live decoys. A pair of passenger pigeons, posed in courtship, imitates the illustration of the species painted by John James Audubon, a passionate ornithologist and artist who gained fame with the publication of Birds of America.

This very illustration in a rare edition of Audubon’s book will be on view in the Hatcher Library Audubon Room between August 26 and September 6. The historic book was the very first purchase for the U-M Library in 1838. And the first comprehensive book about passenger pigeons in more than 50 years recently has been published. The museum will host a free public lecture by Joel Greenberg, author of The Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, on September 19 as part of its William R. Farrand Memorial Lecture series.

The Museum of Natural History uses the story of the passenger pigeon as a cautionary tale and a call to action. From the dodo (another ill-fated pigeon) to currently vulnerable and endangered animals such as whale sharks, bats, and cranes—species have continued to disappear, and with increasing frequency, despite everything we know.

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