The Passenger Pigeon/Introduction

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The Passenger Pigeon by William Butts Mershon

FOR the last three years I have spent most of my leisure time in collecting as much material as possible which might help to throw light on the oft-repeated query, "What has become of the wild pigeons?" The result of this labor of love is scarcely more than a compilation, and I am under many obligations to those who have so cheerfully assisted me. I have given them credit by name in connection with their various contributions, but I wish that I might have been able to give them the more finished and literary setting that would have been within the reach of a trained writer or scientist. I am merely a business man who is interested in the Passenger Pigeon because he loves the outdoors and its wild things, and sincerely regrets the cruel extinction of one of the most interesting natural phenomena of his own country. If I have been able to make a compilation that otherwise would not have been available for the interested reader, I need make no further apologies for the imperfect manner of my treatment of this subject.

It is hard for us of an older generation to realize that as recently as 1880 the Passenger Pigeon was thronging in countless millions through large areas of the Middle West, and that in our boyhood we could find no exaggeration in the records of such earlier observers as Alexander Wilson, the ornithologist, who said that these birds associated in such prodigious numbers as almost to surpass belief, and that their numbers had no parallel among any other feathered tribes on the face of the earth; or that one of their "roosts" would kill the trees over thousands of acres as completely as if the whole forest had been girdled with an ax.

Audubon estimated that an average flock of these pigeons contained a billion and a quarter of birds, which consumed more than eight and a half million bushels of mast in a day's feeding. They were slain by millions during the middle of the last century, and from one region in Michigan in one year three million Passenger Pigeons were killed for market, while in that roost alone as many more perished because of the barbarous methods of hunting them. They supplied a means of living for thousands of hunters, who devastated their flocks with nets and guns, and even with fire. Yet so vast were their numbers that after thirty years of observation Audubon was able to say that "even in the face of such dreadful havoc nothing but the diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease."

Many theories have been advanced to account for the disappearance of the wild pigeons, among them that their migration may have been overwhelmed by some cyclonic disturbance of the atmosphere which destroyed their myriads at one blow. The big "nesting" of 1878 in Michigan was undoubtedly the last large migration, but the pigeons continued to nest infrequently in Michigan and the North for several years after that, and until as late as 1886 they were trapped for market or for trap-shooting. Therefore the pigeons did not become extinct in a day; nor did one tremendous catastrophe wipe them from the face of the earth. They gradually became fewer and existed for twenty years or more after the date set as that of the final extermination.

At one time the wild pigeons covered the entire north from the Gaspé Peninsula to the Red River of the North. Separate nestings and flights were of regular yearly occurrence over this vast eastern and northern expanse. Gradually civilization, molestation and warfare drove them from the Atlantic seaboard west, until Michigan was their last grand rendezvous, in which region their mighty hosts congregated for the final grand nesting in 1878. As late as 1845 they were quite numerous on the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec, but disappeared from there about that time.

The habits of the birds were such that they could not thrive singly nor in small bodies, but were dependent upon one another, and vast communities were necessary to their very existence, while an enormous quantity of food was necessary for their sustenance. The cutting off of the forests and food supply interfered with their plan of existence and drove them into new localities, and the ever increasing slaughter could not help but lessen their once vast numbers.

The Passenger Pigeon laid only one egg in its nest, rarely two, and although it bred three or four times a year it could not replenish the numbers slaughtered by the professional netters. Undoubtedly millions of the birds perished at various periods along the Great Lakes country, becoming confused in foggy weather and dropping from exhaustion into the water, while snow and sleet storms at times caused great mortality among the young birds, and even among the old ones, which often arrived in the North before winter had passed.

The history of the buffalo is repeated in that of the wild pigeon, the extermination of which was inspired by the same motive: the greed of man and the pursuit of the almighty dollar. We lock the barn door after the horse is stolen. Our white pine forests and timber lands in general have been wantonly destroyed with not thought for the future. The American people are wasteful. They are just beginning to learn the need of economy in the use of that which Nature has flung at their feet. When one recalls the destruction of that noble animal, the buffalo, frequently for nothing else than so-called sport, or the removal of a robe; when one thinks of the burning of forest trees which took centuries to grow, merely to clear a piece of land to raise crops, it is not to be wondered at that the wild pigeon, insignificant, and not even classed as a game bird, so soon became extinct.