In 1854, Samuel H. Hammond, a prominent attorney, newspaper writer and editor, State Senator and sportsman, wrote in Hills, Lakes, and Forest Streams: or A Tramp in the Chateaugay Woods (1854) about a sporting trip with his guide to Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks.
Hammond described a world that was considerably different than today, thanks to logging, blasting, damming, and flooding. He wrote in his diary:
We were startled, in the gray twilight of morning, by a distant roaring; not unlike a waterfall, or far off thunder, but of both. We heard it several times, at short intervals, and were unable to account for the sound, until as the light grew more distant, we saw the vast flocks of wild pigeons (passenger pigeons), winging their way in different directions across the lake (Tupper’s Lake), but all appearing to have a common starting-point in the forest, about a mile or more down the lake.
“I understand it all now,” said my guide; “there’s a pigeon roost down there, and Squire, if you’ve never seen one, let me tell you it’s worth going miles and miles to see.”
I had heard and read, of these brooding places of the wild pigeon, and was right glad to have an opportunity of judging of the truth of the statements in regards to them. We paddled down the lake, to a point opposite to where they seemed to be, and struck into the woods. We had no difficulty in finding it, for the thundering sound of the vast flocks as they started from their perches, led us on. About half a mile from the lake we came to the outer edge of the roost. [Probably the southern slopes of Mt. Morris] Hundreds of thousands of pigeons, had flown away that morning, and yet there were hundreds of thousands, and perhaps many millions, old and young, there yet. It covered acres and acres – I have no idea how many, for I did not go around it.
The trees were not of large growth, being mostly of spruce and stinted birch, hemlock and elm, but every one was loaded with nests. In every crotch, on every branch, that would support one, was a nestful of young of all sizes, for little downy things just escaped from the shell, to the full grown one just ready to fly away. The ground was covered with their offal, and the carcasses of the young in every state of decay. The great limbs of the trees outside of the brooding place, were broken and hanging down, being unable to sustain the weight of the thousands that perched upon them. Evidently the wild animals had fattened upon the unfledged birds, that had fallen from the nests, for we saw hundreds of half-devoured carcasses lying around. The hawks and carrion birds congregated about. We heard the cawing of crows, and the croaking of ravens in every direction, and saw them at a distance, devouring the dead birds on the ground. We saw dozens of hawks, and owls sitting upon the trees around, gorged with food, that flew lazily away as we approached. Every few minutes, would be heard the roar of a flock of the birds, as they started from among the trees.
After examining to our satisfaction, this wonderful exhibition of the habits, and the instincts of this truly American bird, we took from the largest of the nests, what would serve for our breakfast and dinner, and (re)turned to the lake. As we passed back, we saw, just outside the roost, two gray foxes stealing away into the thicket. These, and such as them, were having a good time of it that season, among the countless hosts of young pigeons.
We struck across to an island, some half a mile from shore where we breakfasted upon young pigeon broiled upon the coals. They were very fat and tender, and constituted a pleasant change from fish and venison, which, if the truth must be told, were becoming somewhat stale to us . . .
According to more contemporary accounts, Hammond’s description of a passenger pigeon roost was very accurate. Of course what he did not see was the massive migration of the Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorus – named after the French word passager for “passing by or passing over”) as they flew north from their southern wintering areas and splinted off into smaller breeding colonies or roosting grounds.
John James Audubon wrote a few decades earlier, “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of the noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of the wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.” He continued that the passing of pigeons lasted for three days.
These birds numbered in the billions, an estimated 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons graced the skies in the mid-1800s. One out of every four birds in North America was believed to have been a Passenger Pigeon.
There were large nesting colonies, such as the roost near Tupper Lake, all along the eastern and central states, around the Great Lakes and into Quebec and Ontario. As Hammond notes, there was an abundance of free food for both wildlife and human consumption.
There are indigenous sites in Central New York State dating back 4,000 to 8,000 years that include passenger pigeon bones, indicating that pigeons were a staple food during their spring and fall migrations. While there are numerous reports of pigeons being hunted for food during the colonial era, it was not until the advent of the railroad and the telegraph that extensive market hunting made its appearance. Using the telegraph, locations of pigeon nesting sites could be disseminated over a wide area to hunters who traveled by railroad to roosting colonies.
Methods of hunting varied from gunning birds to netting; and the number of birds killed varied. The result was that squabs (young birds still on the nests) and adults were killed in massive numbers, and then barreled, iced and shipped all over the United States as food. Some birds were caught live and used for trapshooting (before clay pigeons); others were killed for their plumage to adorn fashionable hats.
At the same time the American population was expanding, trees were cut for fields and the major pigeon food source, the mast producing oak, beech, and chestnut forests, were diminishing. Farmers resented the loss of their seed crops to pigeons. Market hunting combined with habitat loss spelled doom for the passenger pigeon. Over an approximately fifty-year period (mid-1860s to 1914) a population of billions of birds plummeted to one. The last passenger pigeon, a female called Martha, was said to have died in captivity in the Cincinnati zoo on September 1, 1914.
It’s now been more than a century of extinction for one of the largest bird populations America has ever known. Notably, Project Passenger Pigeon was launched to bring focus to the lessons that should have been learned. The effort sponsored the books A Feathered River Across the Sky (2014), by Joel Greenberg, and the release of David Mrazek’s film From Billions to None, both of which document this tragic history.
Recent research in the field of paleogenomics, indicates that passenger pigeons had a 120,000-year history. Organizations like Revive & Restore, hope to revive the extinct species using cutting-edge DNA technology. The goal is to use ancient DNA (aDNA, DNA from museum collections) combined with the DNA from the current closest relative to the passenger pigeon: the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata).
Many questions remain unanswered, foremost among them is how would de-extinction affect the present ecological system, since passenger pigeons have been absent for a hundred years ?
More About Passenger Pigeons
All pigeons and doves are members of the order Columbiformes. In general pigeons and doves possess short stocky bodies with proportionally small heads. Both male and female birds have a bilobed crop that produces a sort of “milk” that is fed to the chicks. In addition they have thick feathers set close to the skin, and they exhibit monogamous mating behavior. There are 308 recognized species of Combiformes. Most of them are “show” pigeons or exotics.
The Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is not a close relative to the Passenger Pigeon, although its coloration is similar and it is of the order Columbiformes. Mourning Doves are also much smaller. Currently the nearest relative to the passenger pigeon is the Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata).
There is much confusion in regard to the various types of pigeons. Carrier Pigeons, Homing Pigeons, and Racing Pigeons are all bred to return to their “home roost” in the most direct and fastest route. They are all derived from the Common Rock Pigeon (Columba livia). These pigeons are not Passenger Pigeons.
Editor’s note: On August 9, 1891, Auguste Paine shot a Passenger Pigeon at Willsboro, NY, on Lake Champlain. The specimen is now at the American Museum of Natural History.
Photos from above: A male Passenger Pigeon in the collections of the Adirondack Museum (photo by Rick Rosen); Map of Tupper’s Lake (1879, Ely); a female Passenger Pigeon in the Pember Museum Collection (photograph by Mike Prescott); and Passenger Pigeon eggs in Pember Museum Collection (photograph by Mike Prescott).
A special thank you to Bernadette Hoffman, Museum Education, Pember Museum, Granville, NY. and Doreen Alessi-Holmes, Conservation and Collections Manager, Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, NY. for allowing me to photograph the passenger pigeon mounts in their collections.