80. An Exceptional Example of the Extinct Passenger Pigeon

(Ectopisces migratorius)

North America, 19th century
Size: 40 cm high, 50 cm wide
Recased late 20th century

Passenger pigeons were once the most abundant birds in North America, probably accounting for a quarter of all the birds there. They lived in enormous migratory flocks; in 1866 a flock a mile wide and 300 miles long passed over southern Ontario, containing in excess of 3.5 billion birds. In terms of numbers they were second only to the Rocky Mountain locusts. The last living example of the species died in Cincinnati Zoo on September 1st, 1914. She was called Martha. This sad event has been commemorated by three books published in 2014. Her body was frozen into a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was skinned, dissected, photographed and mounted. Currently, Martha is in the museum’s archived collection and not on display. A memorial statue of Martha stands on the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo. Audubon has left a charming description of the mating rituals of these pigeons, pointing out that during the nesting season they remained monogamous.

The above information is lifted verbatim from Wikipedia. Of the three recent publications, Errol Fuller’s book, The Passenger Pigeon (Princeton University Press, 2015), is the most worthwhile: lucid, informative, and above all, it avoids preaching an ecological message. (Errol himself is too wise an old bird!) Spectacular as the extermination of such vast numbers of an entire species in recent times might appear, it is nothing new, although accelerated by the means available to modern man. From the time that Homo Sapiens emerged from East Africa between 70,000 and 45,000 years bc, it has wreaked havoc on the environment. Around 16,000 years ago they crossed from Siberia to Alaska, via the land-bridge that still existed, and in the course of the following three millennia that it took to populate the entire American landmass, they exterminated 80 percent of the larger mammals and many of the smaller species. Thirty million years of independent evolution were wiped out. This destructive tendency was intensified once the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ changed us from hunter-

gatherers to farmers, a development that is sold to us as the great step forward in ‘Civilisation’. Probably, if interviewed, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would present themselves as supremely civilized: just doing their job! In spite of all the information available, modern Homo Sapiens takes an inordinately long time to digest it and make use of it. Perhaps only when faced with our own extinction will we finally change our ways. Jalalludin Rumi wrote a poem about human evolution, saying that in order to make the next jump in our evolution we had to ‘increase our need’. That ‘need’ may be our survival as a species.

The passenger pigeon played a religious role in some northern Native American tribes. The Huron believed that every twelve years during the Feast of the Dead, the souls of the deceased changed into passenger pigeons, which were then hunted and eaten. Before hunting the juvenile pigeons, the Seneca made an offering to the old passenger pigeons, an offering of wampum and brooches that were placed in a small kettle or other receptacle by a smoky fire. The Ho-Chunk considered the passenger pigeon to be the bird of the chief, as they were served whenever the chieftain gave a feast. The Seneca believed that a white pigeon was the chief of the passenger pigeon colony, and that a Council of Birds had decided that the pigeons had to give their bodies to the Seneca because they were the only bird that nested in colonies. The Seneca developed a pigeon dance as a way of showing their gratitude. The flavour of the flesh of passenger pigeons varied depending on how they were prepared. In general, juveniles were thought to taste the best, followed by birds fattened in captivity and birds caught in September and October. The fat was also kept as butter. Though they did not last as long as the feathers of a goose, the feathers of the passenger pigeon were frequently used for bedding. Pigeon feather beds were so popular that for a time in Saint-Jérôme, Quebec, every dowry included a bed and pillows made of pigeon feathers. In 1822, one family in Chautauqua County, New York, killed 4,000 pigeons in a day solely for their feathers.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, various parts of the pigeon were alleged to have medicinal properties. The blood was supposed to be good for eye disorders, the powdered stomach lining was used to treat dysentery, and the dung was used to treat a variety of ailments, including headaches, stomach pains and lethargy.

The passenger pigeon was an important source of food for the people of North America. The Native Americans ate passenger pigeons, and tribes near nesting colonies would sometimes move to live closer to them and eat the juveniles. The juveniles were killed at night with long poles.Most Native Americans were careful not to disturb the adult pigeons, and instead ate only the juveniles as they were afraid that the adult pigeons might desert their nesting grounds; in some tribes disturbing the adult pigeons was considered a crime. Away from the nests, large nets were used to capture adult pigeons, sometimes up to 800 at a time. Among the game birds, passenger pigeons were second only to the wild turkey in terms of importance for the Native Americans living in the south-eastern United States. The bird’s fat was stored, often in large quantities, and used as butter. Archaeological evidence supports the idea that the Native American ate the pigeons frequently prior to colonisation.

Some reduction in numbers occurred from habitat loss when European settlement led to mass deforestation. Next, pigeon meat was commercialised as a cheap food for slaves and the poor in the 19th century, resulting in hunting on a massive and mechanised scale. A slow decline between about 1800 and 1870 was followed by a catastrophic decline between 1870 and 1890. John Herald, a bluegrass singer, wrote a song dedicated to the extinction of the species and Martha, the species’ endling, that he titled ‘Martha (Last of the Passenger Pigeons)’.

When I asked Errol Fuller how much he thought I would have pay for this specimen when it was about to be auctioned, he answered: ‘Ooh, I don’t know – pause – this one could fly.’