“…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.”
Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon
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.
As the pigeons numbers thinned in populated areas, the ever-expanding railroad allowed pigeon trappers to capture and ship millions of them to communal locations. This made hunting more convenient and profitable. Few stepped in on their behalf. Some of the most outspoken critics of the passenger pigeon were farmers, who saw the birds as a plague on crops.
Hunters even developed weapons specifically designed to kill passenger pigeons, called punt guns. As long as a horse and weighing nearly a hundred pounds, punt guns could fire nearly a pound of birdshot at once.
By the mid-1800s, some naturalists realized that the sustained massacre of the passenger pigeon could not continue forever. A theorized extinction of the species, which was an unfamiliar concept to most in those days, could become a reality.
Some cities and states established laws to protect roosting flocks from hunters, but the measures were too few and too late. In 1878, the last wide-scale roosting of the passenger pigeon became the site of an infamous kill known as the Petoskey Slaughter. For five months, 50,000 pigeons were killed every day.
In the late 1800s, scientists documented only scattered sightings of small roosting sites. Although many states and cities had extended laws to protect the few that were left, this did little to dissuade hunters, who depended on the pigeon for their livelihood.
Zoos desperately tried to step in and repopulate the species in controlled environments but were unsuccessful. Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 at the age of 29. Her preserved remains now sit in the Smithsonian Institute.
Before Martha’s death, several passenger pigeon sightings were claimed. Even President Theodore Roosevelt claimed to have seen a phantom pigeon in 1907.
However, the last wild passenger pigeon was identified and verified by a trained ornithologist in 1902. It had been shot just outside Laurel, Indiana, by a boy who had not recognized the bird. It was that final, verified pigeon that the Metamora marker commemorates.
Today, all that remains of the passenger pigeon are stuffed remains, historic markers, and a cautionary tale to guide our future.