200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 172: “Passenger Pigeons ”

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Audubon's illustration of two passenger pigeons
Passenger pigeons from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.

Passenger Pigeons

Can you imagine what a flock of more than a billion birds looks like? Contributing Academy members John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, the Father of American Ornithology, didn’t have to. They encountered the now-extinct passenger pigeon in the early 19th century and provided accounts that seem almost impossible: Wilson estimated that one flock of pigeons contained 2 billion birds, while Audubon observed a flock fly past for three days, estimating that at its peak more than 300 million pigeons per hour passed overhead!

The passenger pigeon was once one of the most common birds in North America, inhabiting Eastern deciduous forests. Unfortunately, because the birds were so plentiful, they made attractive meals. Native Americans and early settlers could simply pick up fat young birds that had fallen out of their nests, and the density of flying flocks made them ideal shooting targets. Market hunters later learned that they could suffocate the pigeons by lighting fires beneath their nests or intoxicate them with alcohol-soaked grains, making the birds easy to catch.

During the decades following the Civil War, passenger pigeon populations declined rapidly. Despite efforts to repopulate locations where they were already extinct, the last flock of wild pigeons died out in Michigan in 1878. Captive flocks failed to flourish, and the last known passenger pigeon, Martha, died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. No one is entirely sure why passenger pigeons went extinct, but it was likely a combination of deforestation and overhunting that reduced the pigeon population to numbers that could not form the large colonies which, in hindsight, appear to have been crucial to their survival.

Even though passenger pigeons are now extinct, you can still catch a glimpse of them in the Academy’s diorama, located on the third floor next to Outside In. To learn even more about passenger pigeons, check out 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.

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