Passenger Pigeons

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Passenger Pigeons in the United States were the dominant bird species during the 19th century. There were approximately three to five billion passenger pigeons in the United States. The passenger pigeon made up over 30% of the bird population in the United States in the 19th century.

Some believe the bird grew in numbers after Europeans because of a decrease in Native American Tribes from disease brought by the Europeans. The fewer Native Americans meant more food for the passenger pigeons. Over time the passenger pigeon went from being the most common bird in the United States and the world to become extinct by the early 20th century.

Passenger Pigeons Facts for Kids

  • Passenger Pigeons were similar in size to a Rock Pigeon. The birds were social and flew in enormous flocks were included hundreds of thousands of birds.
  • As they flew, the number of birds in the sky made the sky similar to an eclipse. The weather and trees were also affected by the flocks.
  • John James Audubon was one of the first people to document the number of Passenger Pigeons in a flock.
  • Passenger Pigeons were hunted for commercial meat. The meat was sold in large cities and used to feed slaves on plantations.
  • Loss of habitat as settlers moved westward was one reason for extinction.
  • Technology like railroads and the telegraph alerted hunters of large flocks approaching.
  • By the turn of 20th-century Naturalist, John Muir noted that the “mighty river in the sky” had run dry.
  • The last Passenger Pigeon named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

 Description

A typical Passenger Pigeon was bigger than an average Mourning Dove. Its size was like the larger Rock Pigeon. The bird’s physical size was between 38 and 42 cm, depending on sex. The Passenger Pigeon weighed around 340-400 grams. The body of a Passenger Pigeon had a red wine breast, a bluish-gray head and tail, and a slate-gray back.

The tail of a Passenger Pigeon was long at more than 20 cm in length. The bird’s social behavior contributed to large flocks. Passenger Pigeons would nest together, fly together, and even rest on each other’s backs.

First documentation

Naturalist John James Audubon was one of the first to document the numbers of passenger pigeons in the United States. As he traveled through Kentucky, he noted the sky would turn black with the birds in flight overhead.

Naturalist John James Audubon

The birds created a tremendous amount of noise when traveling through the skies and breaking tree branches from the downdraft. The blackened skies created an atmosphere of an eclipse with lower temperatures from the sunless skies.

Audubon tried to count the number of birds in a flock, but sometimes the flock took three days to finish fly overhead.

Slow demise

At one point, there were over five billion passenger pigeons in the United States. Some researchers believe the Passenger Pigeon accounted for 25% to 40% of all birds in the United States as Manifest Destiny pushed settlers to western lands, their habitat was destroyed. Settlers cut down thousands of trees like acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts, and other food sources like berries.

But the loss of habitat was not the only reason for their demise. By the 1850s, passenger pigeons were hunted in mass numbers for commercial meat. The meat was sold in bigger cities and used to feed slaves on plantations.

Hunters only needed to point their guns into the sky to kill hundreds as they flew in flocks of ten to hundreds of thousands of birds at a time. There was a slow decline in numbers from 1850 until 1870, but as the railroad and telegraph made their way westward, hunters were notified of approaching flocks of passenger pigeons.

 Extinction

By the late 1800s, the Passenger Pigeon was nearing extinction. The Passenger Pigeon only laid one egg each year. This led to a rapid decline in numbers as the bird was hunted in the western states. Naturalist John Muir noted at the turn of the century that “a mighty river in the sky” had run dry.

The last known Passenger Pigeon named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

Questions

  1. Who was the first naturalist to document the Passenger Pigeon?
    John James Audubon
  1. The Passenger Pigeon was similar in size to what other pigeons?
    Rock Pigeon
  1. Passenger Pigeons were hunted for what purpose?
    Commercial meat
  1. Besides new technology like railroads and the telegraph what else contributed to their extinction?
    Loss of habitat
  1. What was the name of the last known Passenger Pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo?
    Martha