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What Caused the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

Humans have been responsible for driving many species to extinction, one of these is the Passenger Pigeon a bird that once numbered in the billions. How did passenger pigeons become extinct? Why did people kill passenger pigeons? What did passenger pigeons look like? When did the last passenger pigeon die?

Passenger Pigeons were once thought to be the most numerous birds on the earth, numbering in the billions. When they were discovered these birds outnumbered the current population of humans, and yet they were driven to extinction, exterminated, in a very short time.

By the time humans encountered the Passenger Pigeon in North American human activity had already driven many other species to extinction, including the dodo bird, and people were well aware of their role in the demise of other species. Even then the last Passenger Pigeon died in a zoo in 1914.

Description of the Passenger Pigeon

photo of Martha, the last Passenger pigeon, taken shortly before her death. 

Passenger Pigeons were similar in body shape to the mourning dove, although they were slightly larger. Their breasts and necks were iridescent bronze, green, and copper.  Their head, and the back of their body were gray, browns, and black. The females tended to be less colorful than the males.  Pigeons have been noted for being able to see 10x more colors than humans.

Passenger pigeons formed pairs for laying, and would lay 1 egg. Both parents shared in raising their young. They were social birds and lived in massive flocks. Their diet consisted of nuts, seeds, berries, and insects.

Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

By all accounts there may have been 2 to 5 billion passenger pigeons when they were first documented by people in the early 1600's. Flocks were reported to be a mile wide and would take hours to pass overhead. This flocking behavior made they easy for humans to hunt.

The Passenger Pigeon became a popular source of food in the 1800's. It was easy to net massive numbers of birds at once. They were also fed alcohol soaked grain to make them easier to catch. Nesting areas were set on fire to drive the birds out of their nests into nets, or into vision of shooters. The birds were not only used for food for humans, but food for swine too. The slaves found them to be a good source of meat.

There was a commercial industry set up just for hunting and processing of Passenger pigeons, with various sites slaughtering as many as 50,000 birds in one day.

Deforestation was also causing problems for these birds.

The social aspect of the Passenger pigeon; their apparent need to be in big flocks, was being destroy. As the size of the flocks shrunk the remaining birds failed to reproduce. Even when protection laws were put in place in the late 1800's it was too late; there were too few birds to continue the species.

The last authenticated report of a wild Passenger pigeon was in 1900, in Ohio. The last bird, Martha, died captive in a zoo in 1914 and has been stuffed.

Other Reading

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Comments (3)

very interesting article thanks so much

Very informative and interesting!

Learned new about the extinction of this bird, thanks.

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