“…The numbers are so great the sky itself begins to darken. Within a minute or two it is no longer possible to pick out individual birds; the multitude forms one dark, solid block. The sun is blotted out.”
In April, 2017, members of the Indiana Historical Bureau gathered a stone’s throw from the Whitewater Canal in Metamora, Indiana, for the erection of a historical marker. The size of the marker and the small crowd that gathered belied the historic importance of the occasion not only in Hoosier history but world history.
500 years ago, passenger pigeons darkened the skies of North America, numbering not in the millions but in the billions. Ornithologists estimate its numbers between 3 and 5 billion when North America became the New World. Passenger pigeons were used by Native Americans as a food source long before Europeans showed up. However, it was primarily the Europeans that began decimating their numbers, turning this plentiful bird into a staple food.
Although extremely fast in flight, the numbers of passenger pigeons precipitated their downfall. Since they flew and roosted in such close proximity to one another, it took no real skill to hunt them. And in the hands of an experienced hunter, an ordinary shotgun blast could fell over fifty of the birds.
Passenger pigeons appeared on menus and plates across the United States well into the 1800s. In fact, this, the most abundant bird in North America for thousands of years, became so common that farmers took to using them in pig slop. Shooting competitions used the birds as live “traps” and thousands would fall in a single contest.