One of the final stands for the passenger pigeon occurred near Petoskey, Michigan during the spring of 1878.
When the first Europeans arrived in North America, it is estimated that there were 3 billion to 5 billion passenger pigeons. 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 and taking several hours to pass overhead. Yet by the early 1900s no wild passenger pigeons could be found.
The habitat of the passenger pigeon was mixed hardwood forests. The birds depended on the huge forests for their spring nesting sites, for winter “roosts,” and for food. The mainstays of the passenger pigeon’s diet were beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts, seeds, and berries found in the forests. Worms and insects supplemented the diet in spring and summer.
In the winter the birds established “roosting” sites in the forests of the southern states. Each “roost” often had such tremendous numbers of birds so crowded and massed together that they frequently broke the limbs of the trees by their weight. In the morning the birds flew out in large flocks scouring the countryside for food. At night they returned to the roosting area. Their scolding and chattering as they settled down for the night could be heard for miles. When the food supply became depleted or the weather conditions adverse, the birds would establish a new roosting area in a more favorable location.
Because the passenger pigeon congregated in such huge numbers, it needed large forests for its existence. When the early settlers cleared the eastern forests for farmland, the birds were forced to shift their nesting and roosting sites to the forests that still remained. As their forest food supply decreased, the birds began utilizing the grain fields of the farmers. The large flocks of passenger pigeons often caused serious damage to the crops, and the farmers retaliated by shooting the birds and using them as a source of meat. However, this did not seem to seriously diminish the total number of birds.
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.
There were no laws restricting the number of pigeons killed or the way they were taken. Because the birds were communal in habit, they were easily netted by using baited traps and decoys. The birds were shot at the nesting sites, young squabs were knocked out of nests with long sticks, and pots of burning sulphur were placed under the roosting trees so the fumes would daze the birds and they would fall to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed for private consumption and for sale on the market, where they often sold for as little as fifty cents a dozen.
By 1850 the destruction of the pigeons was in full force, and by 1860 it was noticed that the numbers of birds seemed to be decreasing, but still the slaughter continued.
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.
The concerned voices of conservationists had little effect in stopping the slaughter. Finally a bill was passed in the Michigan legislature making it illegal to net pigeons within two miles of a nesting area, but the law was weakly enforced and few arrests were made for violations.
By the early 1890s the passenger pigeon had almost completely disappeared. It was now too late to protect them by passing laws. In 1897 a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature asking for a ten-year closed season on passenger pigeons. This was a completely futile gesture as the birds still surviving, as lone individuals, were too few to reestablish the species.
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?
Bill Loomis, “Slaughtered to extinction: Passenger pigeons in Michigan”, Detroit News, March 18, 2012.
Last Stand for the Passenger Pigeon, Detroit News Photo Essay, March 19, 2012.
The Pigeons Came To Petoskey, an excerpt from Larry B. Massie’s “Voyages into Michigan’s Past”.
Chapter VII, The Passenger Pigeon (1907) by William Butts Mershon
Passenger Pigeon entry from the Smithsonian Encyclopedia.
Passenger pigeons were in the news more recently. See Kelly Servick, “The Plan to Bring the Iconic Passenger Pigeon Back From Extinction”, Wired, March 15, 2013.
Kristi Kates, “The Passing of the Passenger”, Northern Express, July 17, 2015.