Passenger Pigeons

“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

—Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947

Imagine you are a child, playing outside on a sunny spring day. You hear a rumble that grows louder and louder until it is deafening. The sky darkens and for two hours, overhead, a large dark mass hurtles through the air. You run inside in fear. When the sun returns, you look outside. The ground is littered with feathers and bird droppings. You have witnessed the migration of the passenger pigeons.

Fun Facts –

  • Passenger pigeons were the most common birds living in North America in the 1800s. They numbered in the millions, maybe the billions, and flew in huge flocks.
  • As they migrated, they fed on acorns, nuts, and grain. They roosted in such large numbers in the trees that branches would snap from their weight.
  • Passenger pigeons were both feared and loved by frontier settlers and Native Americans. Their migrations were a noisy, sometimes frightening, spectacle. But they tasted good and were easy to hunt because they were so numerous. After long, hungry winters, people rejoiced in the pigeons’ return.
  • Unfortunately, in the late 1800s, professional hunters began gathering to hunt the pigeons. They would kill the birds in huge numbers, using the most inhumane techniques, such as burning down the trees the birds roosted in, suffocating them with sulfur, or poisoning them with whiskey soaked corn. The hunters killed baby birds and destroyed nests, making it difficult for the pigeons to reproduce. Native American leaders were shocked and dismayed by this barbaric behavior. They believed it showed disrespect to God’s creations.
  • The birds were stuffed in wooden barrels and shipped across the United States. They were used as food; their feathers decorated women’s hats.
  • The birds were so numerous that it was hard to imagine that this wouldn’t always be so.
  • But pigeon carriers’ numbers began to shrink in the early 1900s and by 1914, the last known passenger pigeon died in a zoo.

Questions and Answers

Question: What can we learn from the passenger pigeons?

Answer: Although scientists have considered using genetic material to recreate the passenger pigeon, this is probably not a good idea. Our environment has changed and the passenger pigeon probably wouldn’t thrive in it.

What we can learn from the passenger pigeon’s sad story is that humans are capable of creating damage to the earth. Although the earth is rich with resources, they are not without end. We have a responsibility to be good stewards.

Learn More

Visit Audubon to learn more about the passenger pigeon’s extinction.