Where Did All the Pigeons Go? Why the passenger pigeon went from billions to none.


Margaret Michalak, Writer

You’re in the city, sitting on a park bench and taking in the fast-paced energy of city life. All of a sudden, you feel a peck. A pigeon looks up at you, expecting a bread crumb. Little do you know, before 1914, there would have been millions more of these pigeons waddling around, some pecking at your feet. But where did all the pigeons go?

First, it is important that we are all aware that there are hundreds of thousands of types of pigeons– and not just the generic grey and white spotted ones, either. There are brightly colored pigeons found all over the world. One of the more common breeds was the passenger pigeon. At one time, there were about 3 billion passenger pigeons roaming around the United States. They were the most abundant bird in America at their peak population. In fact, during the 1800s, there were more pigeons of this breed than people. Now? There are none. The very last one died on September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Marth and she was 29 years old. So, once again, where did all the pigeons go?

The passenger pigeon was driven to extinction by uncontrolled hunting for its meat, which Euroamerican settlers desired. Their migration and nesting behavior made them easy to hunt in large numbers. In fact, the nesting colonies of the passenger pigeon in Northeastern forests made were so populated that branches broke from their weight. They were netted, shot and smoked out of trees in large quantities, and special firearms were used to harvest them in bulk. The growth of commercial enterprises was facilitated by railroads, which made it possible to transport the meat quickly to urban centers.

The reasons for the passenger pigeon not being able to fully recover from this period of overexploitation is unknown. Some severely endangered species have been able to recover, but the population of this pigeon could not, and continued to decline rapidly. Researchers believe that the species often had fluctuation periods of overpopulation and underpopulation, but for some reason the underpopulation of the late 1800s was too difficult for the birds to overcome.

The passenger pigeon really is a bird our country should spend some time mourning for. After all, not every species of birds can swallow acorns whole. They were truly interesting, and even Henry David Thoreau– being the avid bird watcher that he was– enjoyed observing them.

As sad as it is to not have known the passenger pigeon in our lifetime, there’s no need to get too worked up, because just in New York City alone, there are 1 million pigeons and in the entire world there are a whopping 400 million. Some of the 400 million include species such as the Frillback pigeon, which has curled feathers on the back of its creamy, beige body. There are even competitive showings for the Frillback, similar to dog shows–but for pigeons. The world of pigeons is truly quite miraculous and deserves a second glance—and maybe an extra breadcrumb or two as well.