"The Birds of Kentucky"

©1965,pp 581

Robert Mengel.

Passenger Pigeon data on pp 267-269

*Ectopistes migratorius (Linnaeus): PASSENGER PIGEON

Status.Extinct. Last authentically recorded in Kentucky in 1898 (July and November). In early times apparently resident, being an exceedingly abundant transient and ranging from uncommon to abundant at all seasons; at least on occasion it bred in Kentucky in great numbers.

Note.For general information concerning the hordes of pigeons that once roamed restlessly and periodically to and fro over the vast deciduous forest the reader should consult Schorger,s thorough compilation (1955). The exact biological status of most of the pigeons reported from Kentucky will ever be imperfectly known. The few definite records can be stated only by seasons; it is not at all clear, in most cases, whether great numbers sometimes observed in fall and early winter were migrating southward or merely returning to roosts, or whether similar numbers in spring were migrating northward or foraging out of breeding places. It is equally uncertain whether some of the Kentucky roosts reported in literature were roosts or breeding places. Kentucky lay at the southern extremities of the breeding range and in the northern portion of the wintering range of the species.

Spring - Detailed data are few. Negative evidence suggests that the spring flight, while sometimes impressive, averaged smaller than that of fall. Between Shelbyville and Frankfort, Alexander Wilson (1812:105-106) noted great numbers passing overhead on or about March 24. 1810 (date established from Wilson in Ord, I 825:cxxx), but thought these might be part of a nesting colony then reported in Green County (see below) . In the late nineteenth century occasional observations were still made in spring in the Cincinnati area (Langdon, 1879:181), where specimens now in the Dury collection (C.M.N.H.) were taken as recently as May 3, 1870, and March 7, 1878 (Maslowski and Dury, 1931:76). The precise status of thousands seen by Thomas Hulme (see Thwaites, 1904c:45) on June 23, 1819, along the Ohio River near Evansville (and Henderson, Kentucky) is unknown.

Breeding records.Little information on breeding in Kentucky has been preserved. This pigeon appears to have been an early nester. Local residents near Shelbyville told Alexander Wilson (1812:104-105) that the pigeons arrived at a great breeding place near there about five years ago (or Ca. 1808, if from the time of writing) approximately April 10 and left it altogether, with their young before May 25. Even earlier seems to have been a nesting in Green County, approximately 50 miles southwest of Danville, Boyle County, where Wilson (1812:106) was told that the young begin to fly about the middle of March. When he traversed this breeding place on April 17, 1810, the birds were evidently through breeding although a few lingered in the area. Wilson (in Ord, 1825:cxxx) visited the site of the first-mentioned nesting, then presumably two or more years abandoned, about March 24, 1810, finding it the greatest curiosity I have seen since leaving home. Nestings much later in the season were doubtless aberrant. Dury (see Butler, 1927:12) referred to the nesting of a few scattered pairs in woods near Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio, just across the Ohio River, in the 1870,s. The young were said to be barely able to fly in August. This may well have been one of the last nestings this far south. The earlier great nestings described by Wilson were evidently of enormous size. Although there may be some confusion of the two in Wilson,s accounts (see Wilson, 1812:104-106, and Wilson in Ord, 1825:cxxxviii), one or both of the breeding places mentioned by him were said to be in the neighborhood of 3 miles wide by 40 miles long, and many trees by Wilson,s own count contained more than 90 nests. Other allusions to nesting in Kentucky are vague; two (Warren County, 1835; Green County, date unspecified) are given by Funkhouser (1925:200), and Davis (1923:60) referred to nesting places in Calloway County. As elsewhere, beech timber seems to have been favored for nesting.

Fall - Evidently the movements of the pigeons in autumn were somewhat irregular in timing; in any event no clear picture can be reconstructed from remaining evidence. The few actual dates of observation available are scattered through fall as follows: September 1 (1894), in Knox County. Indiana (E. J. Chansler, fide Butler, 1897:764); September 27 (1820), many thousands near Cincinnati (James Flint; see Thwaites, l904b:301); October 5 (1894), in Knox County, Indiana (Butler, 1897:764); October 29 (1893), near Hickman, Fulton County (Pindar, 1925a:83); October 30, at Casky, Christian County (Bent, 1932:402, authority not given); and December 2 (1792), a huge flight along the Ohio near the mouth of the Wabash (Wright, 1911:441, citing a record by John Heckewelder taken from Penn. Mag. Hist. and Biog., 12:182, 1888). Some of the great autumn flights seem almost to have defied rational description. The classic account of Audubon (1831: 320-321) of a gigantic flight observed between Hardinsburg (Hardensburgh) and Louisville, in 1813. has been quoted at length by Bent (1932:390-391) and Funkhouser (1925:195-196) and need not be repeated here.

Winter- While Kentucky lay to the north of the major winter range, sporadic wintering even of very large numbers of pigeons seems not to have been unusual. Bent (1932:400) mentioned wintering of numbers at Brookville, Indiana, not far north of the Ohio River, in 1853-1854. Langdon (1879:181) referred to wintering at Cincinnati, and a specimen from there (C.M.N.H.), dated January 4, 1883, is in the Dury collection (Maslowski and Dury, 1931:76). Maximilian, Prince of Wied, in 1843 (see Thwaites, 1906:195) reported the wintering of pigeons at New Harmony, Indiana, just north of the Ohio River, in 1832. Scattered records between December 8 and February from various Kentucky localities are given by Schorger (1955:272). Some of these indicate the irregularity, or seeming irregularity, of pigeon movements: thus "millions flying northward (from the Loutsville Courier for Jan. 23, 1858) on January 22, 1858, and "a great flight southward in February, 1820, at South Union, Logan County (Coombs, 1940:162). Some of these may have been birds flying between roosting and feeding areas, rather than flights in the migratory sense. The great roosts sometimes established in mast-producing deciduous forest evidently made a memorable impression, and major ones were long recalled even though the details became vague with time. Localities in Kentucky where the memory of roosts was still strong in the early 1900,s are found in Laurel, Pulaski, and Warren counties (Funkhouser, 1925:199"200), and in Calloway County (Davis, 1923:60). Large roosts were reported more definitely in the vicinity of Green River, probably not far from Henderson, in Audubon,s time there (Audubon, 1831:323"324), and in Ohio County in 1847 (Revoil, 1928, in translation) . Undoubtedly the localities of many others have been forgotten.

Disappearance - The great decline of the species seems to have occurred rather rapidly, a decrease becoming clearly evident about 1860 to 1870; the pigeon was very rare by 1890. According to Langdon (1879:181) the last truly great flight in the Cincinnati area occurred in the fall of 1865. At Bardstown, Nelson County, Beckham wrote (1885:43-44) that the species was still exceedingly common during some falls but [much decreased], and mentioned an enormous flight ... about fifteen years ago, perhaps the flight of 1865 mentioned by Langdon. Pindar (1925a:83) saw his last 2 pigeons in Fulton County on October 29, 1893. E. J. Chansler recorded a considerable flock in Knox County, Indiana, on September 1, 1894 (Butler, 1897:764). An immature male was secured 2 miles east of Owensboro, Davies County, on July 27, 1898, by one J. G. Taylor, and presented to the Smithsonian Institution (see editorial note, probably by Elliott Coues, in The Osprey, 3:12, September, 1898; not by Taylor as given in Schorger, 1955:288; see also Fleming, 1907:237) . As of its reception at the Smithsonian, The Osprey tells us, this specimen was the sole authentic result of a popular but spurious belief then prevalent that the Smithsonian was offering a large cash reward for pigeons. It may be the last authentic Kentucky record as well, although there is little reason to doubt the report of Col. Lucien Beckner (1927:55-56) of one killed 3 miles southwest of Winchester, Clarke County, on November 20, 1898, by his brother Seth Beckner. To the subsequent regret of everyone concerned, the specimen was eaten instead of preserved! Quoting a letter from Col. Beckner, Pindar (1925a:83) gave the date of the above record as 1897, but preference is to be given Beckner's published article, which is more explicit in every respect.

Note- Various bones of the present species have been recovered from Indian materials (probably prehistoric) recently collected at Paducah, McCracken County, and studied by Glen E. Woolfenden (letter: October 27, 1961).


Contributed by Jim Forrest


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