Passenger Pigeon Taxidermy

Taxidermy of Passenger Pigeons

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The Passenger Pigeon

The Passenger Pigeon, once probably the most numerous bird on the planet, made its home in the billion or so acres of primary forest that once covered North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Their flocks, a mile wide and up to 300 miles long, were so dense that they darkened the sky for hours and days as the flock passed overhead. Early explorers and settlers frequently mentioned passenger pigeons in their writings. Samuel de Champlain in 1605 reported "countless numbers," Gabriel Sagard-Theodat wrote of "infinite multitudes," and Cotton Mather described a flight as being about a mile in width. Population estimates from the 19th century ranged from 1 billion to close to 4 billion individuals. Total populations may have reached 5 billion individuals and comprised up to 40% of the total number of birds in North America.

Victorian Passenger Piegeons in close up.A lable on the back dates them at 1840. The valuation from Rowland Ward in the 1970's valued them at 300.00. When we went to view them in the UK, we were expecting Turtle doves, not perhaps the finest pair to remain in the UK. These birds are interest /educational only and not for sale. It is further understood that this diminutive bird was once perhaps the most numerus on the planet. Officially extinct in 1914.


Great flock as the wildlife artist Audobon and taxidermist Henry Ward would have witnessed. None are alive today.

The notable decrease of passenger pigeons started when professional hunters began netting and shooting the birds to sell in the city markets. Although the birds always had been used as food to some extent, even by the Indians, the real slaughter began in the 1800s.One of the last large nestings of passenger pigeons occurred at Petoskey, Michigan, in.1878.
Here 50,000 birds per day were killed and this rate continued for nearly five months. When the adult birds that survived this massacre attempted second nestings at new sites, they were soon located by the professional hunters and killed before they had a chance to raise any young. None are alive today????????. A truly spectacular piece of extermination.)


Passenger Pigeons of North America, now extinct due to man's wanton extermination of a single species. Victorian case

On the Hunting of Passenger Pigeons

On such occasions, when the woods are filled with these Pigeons, they are killed in immense numbers, although no apparent diminution ensues. About the middle of the day, after their repast is finished, they settle on the trees, to enjoy rest, and digest their food. On the ground they walk with ease, as well as on the branches, frequently jerking their beautiful tail, and moving the neck backwards and forwards in the most graceful manner. As the sun begins to sink beneath the horizon, they depart en masse for the roosting-place, which not infrequently is hundreds of miles distant, as has been ascertained by persons who have kept an account of their arrivals and departures.


Commeration to the Passenger Pigeon

Let us now, kind reader, inspect their place of nightly rendezvous. One of these curious roosting-places, on the banks of the Green river in Kentucky, I repeatedly visited. It was, as is always the case, in a portion of the forest where the trees were of great magnitude, and where there was little under-wood. I rode through it upwards of forty miles, and, crossing it in different parts, found its average breadth to be rather more than three miles. My first view of it was about a fortnight subsequent to the period when they had made choice of it, and I arrived there nearly two hours before sunset. Few Pigeons were then to be seen, but a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments on the borders. Two farmers from the vicinity of Russelsville, distant more than a hundred miles, had driven upwards of three hundred hogs to be fattened on the pigeons which were to be slaughtered. Here and there, the people employed in plucking and salting what had already been procured, were seen sitting in the midst of large piles of these birds. The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting-place.


Martha, the last recorded Passenger Pigeon. Martha, died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo at about 1:00 pm on September 1, 1914. This currently is the only animal that has gone extinct on a specific time and date. Not that this is anything to cheer about

Many trees two feet in diameter, I observed, were broken off at no great distance from the ground; and the branches of many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if the forest had been swept by a tornado. Every thing proved to me that the number of birds resorting to this part of the forest must be immense beyond conception. As the period of their arrival approached, their foes anxiously prepared to receive them. Some were furnished with iron-pots containing sulfur, others with torches of pine-knots, many with poles, and the rest with guns. The sun was lost to our view, yet not a Pigeon had arrived. Every thing was ready, and all eyes were gazing on the clear sky, which appeared in glimpses amidst the tall trees. Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of "Here they come!" The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent, as well as wonderful and almost terrifying, sight presented itself. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses were formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading.

John James Audubon's account of the Passenger Pigeon

Victorian Passenger Piegeons in close up.A lable on the back dates them at 1840. The valuation from Rowland Ward in the 1970's valued them at 300.00. When we went to view them in the UK, we were expecting Turtle doves, not perhaps the finest pair to remain in the UK. These birds are interest /educational only and not for sale. It is further understood that this diminutive bird was once perhaps the most numerus on the planet. Officially extinct in 1914.

No one dared venture within the line of devastation. The hogs had been penned up in due time, the picking up of the dead and wounded being left for the next morning's employment. The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in the number of those that arrived. The uproar continued the whole night; and as I was anxious to know to what distance the sound reached, I sent off a man, accustomed to perambulate the forest, who, returning two hours afterwards, informed me he had heard it distinctly when three miles distant from the spot. Towards the approach of day, the noise in some measure subsided: long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons began to move off in a direction quite different from that in which they had arrived the evening before, and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howling of the wolves now reached our ears, and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums and pole-cats were seen sneaking off, whilst eagles and hawks of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them, and enjoy their share of the spoil.
It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The Pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.

John Josselyn, in his "Two Voyages to New England" published in 1672, describes the vast numbers of the Pigeons and says, "But of late they are much diminished, the English taking them with nets." This seems to indicate that the extirpation of the species began within forty years after the first settlement of New England, and exhibits the net as one of the chief causes of depletion. From soon after the first occupancy of New England by the whites until about the year 1895, the netting of the Passenger Pigeon in North America never ceased. Thousands of nets were spread all along the Atlantic seaboard. Nets were set wherever Pigeons appeared, but there were no great markets for them to supply until the nineteenth century. Early in that century, the markets were often so glutted with Pigeons that the birds could not be sold at any price. Schooners were loaded in bulk with them on the Hudson River for the New York market, and later, as cities grew up along the shores of the Great Lakes, vessels were loaded with them there; but all this slaughter had no perceptible effect on the numbers of the Pigeons in the West until railroads were built throughout the western country and great markets were established there. Then the machinery of the markets reached out for the Pigeons, and they were followed everywhere, at all seasons, by hundreds of men who made a business of netting and shooting them for the market. Wherever the Pigeon nested, the pigeoners soon found them, and destroyed most of the young in the nests and many of the adult birds as well. Every great market from St. Louis to Boston received hundreds or thousands of barrels of Pigeons practically every season. The New York market at times took one hundred barrels a day without a break in price. Often a single western town near the nesting-grounds shipped millions of Pigeons to the markets during the nesting season, as shown by the shipping records. Nesting after nesting was broken up and the young destroyed for many years until, in 1878, the Pigeons, driven by persecution from many states, concentrated largely in a few localities in Michigan, where a tremendous slaughter took place. These were the last great nesting grounds of which we have any record. Smaller nestings were known for ten years afterward, and large numbers of Pigeons were seen and killed; but after 1890 the Pigeons grew less and less in number until 1898, when the last recorded instances of their capture occurred that can now be substantiated by preserved specimens. Since that time, there are two apparently authentic instances of the capture of the Pigeon recorded, one in Ohio and the other in Wisconsin, and my investigations have revealed a few more which have been published in my 'History of the Game Birds, Wild Fowl and Shore Birds.' Mr. Otto Widmann, who kindly undertook to look into the history of the Passenger Pigeon for me in the markets of St. Louis, states that Mr. F. H. Miller of that place, a marketman who has sold and handled large quantities of Pigeons, received twelve dozen from Rogers, Arkansas, in 1902 and, later, a single bird, shipped to him from Black River in 1906. No exact dates can be given. Mr. Glover M. Allen, in his list of the 'Aves, Fauna of New England,' published by the Boston Society of Natural History in 1909, records a specimen killed at Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1904-. A careful investigation leads me to believe that this is an authentic record, although I have not yet seen the specimen.

Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease, as they not infrequently quadruple their numbers yearly, and always at least double it. In 1805 I saw schooners loaded in bulk with Pigeons caught up the Hudson river, coming in to the wharf at New York, when the birds sold for a cent a piece. I knew a man in Pennsylvania, who caught and killed upwards of 500 dozens in a clap-net in one day, sweeping sometimes twenty dozens or more at a single haul. In the month of March 1830, they were so abundant in the markets of New York, that piles of them met the eye in every direction. I have seen the Negroes at the United States' Salines or Saltworks of Shawanee Town, wearied with killing Pigeons, as they alighted to drink the water issuing from the leading pipes, for weeks at a time; and yet in 1826, in Louisiana, I saw congregated flocks of these birds as numerous as ever I had seen them before, during a residence of nearly thirty years in the United States.


Male and Female Passenger Pigeons by John James Audubon.


Male and Female Passenger Pigeons.

As late as 1854 in Wayne County, New York, a local resident wrote that. `There would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another.' On 8 April 1873 at Saginaw in Michigan there was a continuous stream of passenger pigeons overhead between 7.30 in the morning and 4 o'clock in the afternoon.
Other reports describe flocks a mile wide flying overhead for four or five hours at a time during their migration in the early spring from the south to their breeding areas in New England, New York, Ohio and the southern Great Lakes area. The flocks were so thickly packed that a single shot could bring down thirty or forty birds and many were killed simply by hitting them with pieces of wood as they flew over hilltops.


Many thanks Garrie P Landry for the pictures and text.

It is now generally accepted that the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon was due to the loss of their numbers below the minimum at which the species could exist. No one has yet given a satisfactory explanation, except that a psychological effect appears to be involved. The Passenger Pigeon. it seems was a bird used to living in the "grand manner" who's way of life was so upset and reduced that it could not carry on under such circumstances. Such is not the case with all species as some species are capable of responding to favorable conditions and become numerous again. Apparently the Passenger Pigeon lacked this adaptability. There is no doubt in the author's mind that this upsetting of the balance of life (of the pigeon) was the final factor contributing to its extinction The pigeons were subjected to shooting on the widest and most devastating scale. They were never free from persecution at any time of the year. The were hunted in spring at the beginning of nesting which was most disastrous, where the fat squabs were always considered a delicacy, later young birds in summer were much sought after, and finally adults were taken at all times. The pigeon had no peace.


Passegner Pigeons in flight

Wrote one visiting french naturalist as early as 1850, "This variety of game [passenger pigeon] in America is threatened with destruction. Everything leads to the belief that the pigeons, which cannot endure isolation, will eventually disappear from this continent. And if the world endures a century longer, I will wager that the amateur of ornithology will find no pigeons except in select museums of Natural History." How unfortunate for us all that his words became truth.
The Passenger Pigeon is now extinct. Over hunting, the clearing of forests to make way for agriculture, and perhaps other factors doomed the species. The decline was well under way by the 1850ís. The last nesting birds were reported in the Great Lakes region in the 1890ís. The last reported individuals in the wild were shot at Babcock, Wisconsin in 1899, and in Pike County, Ohio on March 24, 1900. Some individuals, however, remained in captivity. The last Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo at about 1:00 pm on September 1, 1914. Who could have dreamed that within a few decades, the once most numerous bird on Earth would be forever gone.

Before the turn of the century it became apparent that passenger pigeons were far and few between. By the turn of the century, there were no sightings. Rewards were offered. By 1910, a standing reward of $1,000, made by individuals, was offered for information leading to a nesting pair or colony. The Cincinnati Zoo was offering a $1,000 reward for a male passenger pigeon that would mate with its female pigeon, Martha. The rewards were never claimed.

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