The sad demise of the passenger pigeon

Published 8:45 am Friday, August 29, 2008

Of all the birds that once lived and migrated in North America, none will ever equal the unbelievably huge numbers of passenger pigeons in the 1800s. And as I implied in the last column, and will prove in this column, these birds were once a major part of wildlife here in Freeborn County. I’m also tempted to report that these wild birds may have numbered a million or even more in the county as they once flew from place to place in their eternal quest for food, and where they nested and roosted during the warmer parts of the year.

A good source for information about the passenger pigeons and where they were once a major part of the county’s bird population can be found in the Sept. 24, 1937, issue of the Tribune. This column was recently found by historical researcher Kevin Savick. The title of this column by Rev. W.E. Thompson of Gordonsville, was “Mystery of the Passenger Pigeon.”

One of those places was in the groves of trees along the Shell Rock River near Gordonsville. The reverend visited with brothers Peter, Emil and Neem Nelson who recalled the large numbers of wild pigeons in those groves. The Nelsons told him they went hunting in 1874 with a small shotgun. One of their best single shots resulted in five birds. These and the other then plentiful dead pigeons were taken home to provide food for the family and also maybe some neighbors.

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The Nelsons said these wild pigeons started to decline in numbers about 1875 and by 1880 ceased coming to the Gordonsville area.

Another place the reverend mentioned where passenger pigeons once roosted in “enormous numbers” was near Freeborn. Here, another method was used to harvest the birds. A large net was spread out on the ground. This area was likely baited with grain. The pigeons would fly down and alight for the free food. When several hundred pigeons were in the baited area, the sides of the net were released. What resulted was the slaughter of those trapped pigeons.

If one word can be used to explain the eventual demise of the passenger pigeons, then that word is slaughter. For all too many years professional hunters called pigeoners harvested these birds using several methods and with absolutely no legal limits by the millions each year in various parts of the nation. What they harvested, if that word fits in here, was processed and shipped in barrels to eastern markets.

If another word can be used to describe the vast numbers of these birds when they migrated from south to north each year, then that word has to be unbelievable.

In 1806, Alexander Wilson, a famous ornithologist, saw a huge flock of passenger pigeons in Kentucky which he estimated to number over two million birds. And the even more famous John James Audubon saw another flock in Kentucky during 1813 which passed overhead for three days. He said they numbered over a billion birds.

What has been called the greatest bird butchery in history lasted from about 1840 to 1890. During this same time period the slaughter of the bison or buffalo was also taking place on the nation’s Great Plains. A few buffalo actually survived; the last passenger pigeon, a female, died in her exhibit cage during September 1914 at the Zoological Gardens in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Rev. Thompson’s column said, “… passenger pigeons, probably the most abundant game bird that ever existed anywhere, were wiped from the face of the earth by civilized man.”

Yet, there were folks who stubbornly believed that a few passenger pigeons were still living in North America or elsewhere in the world.

In fact, a rather substantial reward was once offered for anyone who could find one or more of the supposedly extinct birds. However, no one ever collected this reward, according to the reverend. (I was unable to find out how much this reward amount was or who sponsored the elusive search for even one surviving bird.)

The sad truth is this. We may have pigeons of various breeds here in Albert Lea, around some farms in the area, and elsewhere in the nation, but not one comes even close to being a passenger pigeon.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.