Taken from "Birds of Mississippi", 1999, 455 pp,
William H. Turcotte & David L. Watts.
Passenger Pigeon data on pages
[Passenger Pigeon] Ectopistes migratorius
The Passenger Pigeon is extinct, and perhaps the very name implies that Passenger Pigeons were destined for passage from the planet. We need to remember the often-told stories of their mass slaughter and extermination by market hunters at immense breeding colonies. This unlimited killing was aided by apathy and carelessness, an expanding human population, and technology. The last Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died on September 1, 1914, as a captive in the Cincinnati Zoological Park. On that date, the species joined ranks with the Dodo, a large flightless pigeon once inhabiting islands off the coast of Madagascar. Dodos were exterminated for food by early explorers who killed them with clubs. No trace of Dodos remains today other than drawings made by travelers.
Before this country was settled, vast regions of the eastern United States were covered with hardwood forests. Passenger Pigeons, estimated in the billions by early explorers, ranged over the forest, feeding on the mast of beech,oaks, and native chestnuts. Huge flocks of birds in passage to and from feeding grounds and communal roosts darkened the sky.
They were known to break large limbs off trees by their sheer weight on roosts, which could cover 40 square miles or more, their droppings covering the ground to a depth of several inches. Natural predators including wolves, foxes, bobcats, hawks, owls, and even vultures could not penetrate or decimate their immense numbers on roosts and at breeding colonies.
Early settlers took Passenger Pigeons for food with traps, nets, and guns, but this had little effect because the flocks were highly mobile. They moved on when food supplies were exhausted, a strategy similar to that used today by insects such as cicadas and grasshoppers. The birds over-whelmed their natural predators either by their great numbers or mobility, enabling them to exploit all available food sources.
The Passenger Pigeon became vulnerable only when advancing civilization brought railroads and the telegraph within easy reach of breeding colonies (Blockstein and Tordoff 1985). In 1871, one colony in Wisconsin covered 850 square miles and contained an estimated 135 million birds. Such large concentrations, when accessible to eastern markets by telegraph and a network of available rail-roads, were marked for extinction by professional pigeon hunters.
Every conceivable method was used to decimate the breeding birds and ship them in barrels and carloads to big city markets for human consumption. In the 1890s deforestation and exploitation had their final effects on the birds, and the last wild specimens were taken in Wisconsin and Ohio. The last sight records of Passenger Pigeons are debatable.They made their nests of small dry twigs, bits of sticks, dry leaves and all kind of trash found on the ground, and by the time they had completed their work, the entire bottom looked black and clear of litter as if it had been swept with a broom, not a leaf nor a stick was left, and to judge from the appearance of the scanty nests, the birds didn,t have half enough.
Through all the before mentioned 30 square miles of that densely timbered bottom, from as high as one,s head on horseback on the saplings, to the topmost limbs on the tallest trees, not a vacant spot where a nest could be crowded in, was to be found anywhere.
Egg laying commenced synchronously and only one egg per nest was found on a later visit. During the incubation period,
the foliage of the trees had not yet unfolded but the packed and muffled up appearance of their tops made the swamp dark as midsummer. On the large horizontal prongs of the big trees, were long rows of nests, closely jammed side by side, and in all the forks, on projecting knots and many more unlikely places nests were found. Many on the saplings were frequently found so low that sitting on horseback one could peep into them; and finding but one egg in each, we surmised that they were not done laying... . Three days after we went again, but there were no more eggs, one a piece was all that was deposited at that nesting place.
Lincecum described the enormous activity and noise of feeding the young on later visits. Then, the adults suddenly abandoned the fledglings in the nests for two days when all of the young left simultaneously. Two days later great numbers of the young pigeons were on adjacent prairies of the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations feeding on the fields of wild strawberries. The Indians were killing them with sticks for food. Four days later all were gone. The adults presumably moved northward to new feeding grounds and were followed by the young as soon as the strawberries were consumed. Lincecum confirmed the presence and departure of the young pigeons from the strawberry fields on two hunting trips to the prairie to shoot pigeons and night-hunt for deer.
Although the Passenger Pigeon once occurred and even nested in Mississippi, there is little evidence. Imhof (1976) records it in Alabama in large flocks up to 1881 and last seen in 1890. Only a few place names such as Pigeon Roost Creek and a marker on the Natchez Trace remind us of the birds, former presence. Ample evidence of the Passenger Pigeon can be found in literature, and many museum specimens and exhibits remain to document its passage to extinction.
The reproductive potential of the Passenger Pigeon was very low compared to the Mourning Dove and Bobwhite Quail. The dove commonly lays two eggs and produces multiple broods each season. Quail lay 10 or more eggs and renest until a brood is hatched. But the Passenger Pigeon laid only one egg, and laying and hatching in the colonies were highly synchronous. Although the pigeons would renest, the pressures of feeding young in large colonies constricted the breeding period. The ability of both adults to produce pigeon milk while feeding young twice a day was abetted by mobility, enabling them to range far and wide to obtain sufficient food.
The Passenger Pigeon was larger than but similar to the Mourning Dove. It had a longer tail and was bluish gray instead of brown on the back and head. The adult male was more colorful on the throat, breast, and sides. Being highly esteemed as food made the birds a candidate for early destruction. Squabs were a prized delicacy. The American bison was threatened in a similar fashion, but fortunately it has survived.
contributed by Jim Forrester
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