Passenger Pigeon – The Most Numerous Bird Ever
It is not possible to give an accurate estimate of the population of Passenger Pigeon, North American bird (Ectopistes migratorius), as it became extinct in the wild in about 1900, and the position is complicated further through American definition of a billion – a thousand million, whereas in Britain it is a million million.
History of Passenger Pigeon
Nonetheless, there are so many reports about this remarkable bird, Passenger Pigeon, we are safe in suggesting that its population was in the region of 5—10,000 million in the first half of the 19th century before hunting with guns was very extensive. It might well have provided 45% of the total bird population of America, though a lower figure is more likely. Even the most conservative estimates talk of ‘hundreds of millions’, and 3,000 million are thought to have been alive at the time of Columbus so its great success cannot be attributed entirely to agriculture or other human interference with habitat.
Facts about this most numerous bird
The extinction of this prolific continental species in such a short time is probably the most dramatic decline of all time. The bird was hunted relentlessly in vast quantities for the table and no one could ever conceive that total extermination was possible.
Yet the eventual disappearance remains puzzling as the last few millions went with such suddenness. Some authorities suggest that a migratory disaster or even disease contributed to the demise over the last 20 or so years. Another theory is that the bird’s breeding success might have been dependent on its gregarious habits.
It has been suggested that the reproductive rate could have dropped with the size of the colonies, some of which were several square kilometres in extent with a hundred or more nests in a single tree. Physical and chemical damage to trees was great.
When and how Passenger Pigeon bird completely vanished from the earth?
The species bred throughout the northern forests from Manitoba to Nova Scotia and south to Kansas and West Virginia. Passenger Pigeon wintered from Arkansas and North Carolina south to central Texas and northern Florida. Many reports tell of migrating flocks of 1—2,000 million birds.
The famous author and artist Audubon (qev.) estimated a flock near Louisville at 1,115,136,000. Fellow ornithologist Alexander Wilson estimated an even larger flock in Kentucky to contain 2,230,272,000 birds, yet considered this to be far below the true number.
He suggested that if each Passenger pigeon bird ate 1/2Pt of acorns a day their daily consumption would be 17,424,000 bushels. This single massive flock would have outnumbered 10 to 1 all the birds in the British Isles as once estimated by James Fisher.
The last immense nesting took place in 1878 at a time when vast acreages of the bird’s forest habitat were being converted to farmland. Quite apart from sport and some local subsistence shooting, market gunning took its toll. Countless barrels of birds were shipped to the big cities where they often rotted on the sidewalks for want of buyers.
The last well-verified shooting took place in Wisconsin in 1899. The last recorded passenger pigeon of all, ‘Martha Washington’, died in Cincinnati Zoo, Ohio, USA at 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on 1 September 1914. She had been hatched at the zoo and died aged 29. The mounted specimen is exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington.