Sept. 1 marks a solemn anniversary: the centennial of the passing of the last passenger pigeon. It’s a day when humanity should pause to consider its role in the passing of a species that once dominated the landscape of the eastern United States.
The passenger pigeon-a wild bird, not to be confused with the domesticated carrier pigeon-went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction in the early 20th century. Martha-the world’s last passenger pigeon-died in captivity 100 years ago tomorrow at the Cincinnati Zoo.
It is estimated that there were 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons at the time Europeans discovered America. In 1813, John James Audubon witnessed a never-ending flock of passenger pigeons-moving at 60 miles an hour and blocking the noonday sun-that took three days to pass.
Tennessee and the southeastern U.S. served as wintering grounds for passenger pigeons. Their historical presence is marked by archaeological evidence and the number of geographical locations named after them. One of their most famous namesakes is Pigeon Forge, partly named after the Little Pigeon River that runs through town. The Little Pigeon River was originally named by the Cherokee after the wild pigeons found roosting along its riverbanks.
In 1936, the Tennessee Ornithological Society’s quarterly journal, The Migrant, published the memoir of W.R. Manlove. As a boy, Manlove witnessed one of the last flights of the passenger pigeon in Tennessee in fall 1870 over his father’s farm in White Creek, 6 miles north of Nashville:
The dreamy silence of early morning was broken by the rushing sound as a great column of wild pigeons came flying swiftly up the valley. This column was so wide that it reached almost from range to range of the side hills, a distance of a mile, and so dense as to darken the sun, so that we had to light lamps in the house. As the birds passed directly overhead, the swishing of their wings could be distinctly heard amid the roar of their flight, which was like that of a rushing mighty wind.
The passenger pigeon was surprisingly vulnerable to humans and changes in the landscape. In hindsight, the bird’s extinction is attributed to two major causes: commercial exploitation of pigeon meat and loss of habitat.
The birds would nest in vast colonies and migrated in enormous flocks, which made them easy to hunt. Each female passenger pigeon laid only one egg a year, so it was difficult to quickly replace losses.
Damage to their populations grew more intense with the onset of large-scale commercial hunting carried out by well-organized trappers and shippers to supply developing cities with a cheap source of meat. Hunters killed passenger pigeons by the millions and sent them to cities in the East and Midwest by rail.
Additionally, the birds fed mainly on acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts in the extensive woodlands of North America, so as forests were cut, their habitat and food supplies were greatly affected.
As flocks dwindled in size, populations decreased below the threshold necessary to propagate the species. Naturalist Paul Ehrich later wrote that the bird’s extinction “illustrates a very important principle of conservation biology: it is not always necessary to kill the last pair of a species to force it to extinction.”
In 1857, a bill was brought to the Ohio Legislature seeking protection for the passenger pigeon. A Select Committee of the Senate filed a report stating that “the passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”
But by the mid-1890s, the passenger pigeon had almost completely disappeared. The last record of a wild passenger pigeon was near Sargents, Ohio, March 1900, when the bird was killed by a boy with a BB gun. Reports of small group sightings were reported in Arkansas and Louisiana until the first decade of the 20th century.
A small population of passenger pigeons remained at the Cincinnati Zoo, including a pair patriotically named for George and Martha Washington. By 1910, Martha was the sole survivor. She spent four years as a melancholy zoo attraction; visitors reportedly tossed sand at her to get her to move.
From 1909 to 1912, the American Ornithologists’ Union offered $1,500 to anyone finding a nest or colony of passenger pigeons, but their efforts were futile.
On Sept. 1, 1914, Martha died, marking the end of the species on earth.
In the years following Martha’s death, efforts were made to protect other species in the United States and beyond. Perhaps the extinction of the passenger pigeon served as catalyst for change, from which other species have reaped the benefits.
In 1947, famed naturalist Aldo Leopold paid tribute to the passenger pigeon at a dedication held by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology at Wyalusing State Park, which had been one of the species’ social roost sites. Leopold remarked: “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”
To mark the centennial of the passing of the last of this species, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a passenger pigeon specimen on display at Sugarlands Visitor Center as part of an exhibit that runs through October.
This male specimen, which was shot near Nashville circa 1856, was originally collected by an officer of the Confederate Army. The mounted bird was later purchased by a regional naturalist and early Smoky Mountains explorer and was donated to the park by his daughter.
To read more about the demise of the passenger pigeon, check out bird blogger and author Joel Greenberg’s new book, “A Feathered River across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.” Greenberg has also helped create Project Passenger Pigeon, an affiliation of educational institutions, museums and nature societies aiming to use the anniversary of Martha’s death as an educational tool about the relationship between people and the natural world.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a Chattanooga-based writer and naturalist who enjoys promoting the region’s historical, cultural and natural assets through her work with the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.