The Passenger Pigeon/Chapter XIV

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A Novel Theory of Extinction

By C. H. Ames and Robert Ridgway

Boston, March 8, 1906.

Mr. W. B. Mershon:

Dear Sir:—Thank you for your note of the third in reply to mine of the first, in regard to your book on the Passenger Pigeon, I note that you say:

"There is room to make additions if you think you have something that would be interesting, and would like to submit it to me for my consideration. "

Thanking you for your courtesy in the matter, I beg to say that I have long had great interest in the problem of the so sudden and complete destruction of this great species, and have from the first been quite unable to believe that the ordinarily assigned agencies for the destruction of the pigeon were adequate, or anywhere near adequate, to make a destruction so sudden and complete.

Several accounts which have come to my notice have strengthened my view. I know well that the attack of man and beast upon the pigeons in their rookeries, or breeding places, was fierce, persistent and enormously destructive, and that at these breeding places the destroyers gathered in great numbers, but, with my vivid recollection of the tremendous flights of pigeons which I myself saw in the '60's in northern Illinois, the wide distribution of the bird, and what I know of its migratory habits (I wish I knew very much more about these habits), I cannot think that in so few years the practical destruction of the species could be effected by the means referred to.

Years ago—I cannot tell how many, but I am confident it must have been at about the time of the disappearance of the great pigeon flights—I read an account, either in or quoted from a New Orleans newspaper, giving the stories of several ship captains and sailors who had arrived in New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico. They stated that they had, in crossing the Gulf, sailed over leagues and leagues of water covered, and covered thickly, with dead pigeons. The supposition was that an enormous flight of the pigeons crossing the waters of the Gulf had been overwhelmed by a cyclone, or some such atmospheric disturbance, and that the birds had been whirled into the surf and drowned.

I have been told by competent ornithologists connected with the Boston Society of Natural History that Pigeon Cove, a well-known and much frequented extremity of Cape Ann, near Gloucester, Mass., received its name from the fact that a large flight of pigeons was similarly overwhelmed in flying along the Atlantic near that place, and that their bodies covered the shore in "windrows."

Not more than two years ago, if so long, I read a lengthy and signed account in a Montreal paper of a similar catastrophe to a great flight of pigeons in attempting to cross Lake Michigan, and similar statement was made that for miles the beach above Milwaukee was heaped and piled with "windrows" of dead pigeons.

Within two or three years several accounts have reached us, bearing every mark of believability, that considerable flights of geese, swans and ducks have been drowned in the surf off the New Jersey and Maryland shores. These flights of birds have been overwhelmed in a sudden storm or gale of wind, which beat them down into the surf where they were drowned, their bodies drifting about, and some of them being thrown up on the shore.

These accounts have come from fishermen, sportsmen and others, and I see no reason whatever to doubt that a flight of birds of any species known could easily be destroyed if caught off shore in some of the wind storms of which we have so many instances. I have frequently in Forest and Stream propounded my theory and asked for information about it before it became too late. The whole theory stands or falls, as it seems to me, with the ascertainment of the southern limit of the migration of the great pigeon flight. If the birds did not cross the Gulf of Mexico there is far less likelihood of my theory being the correct one, though my inquiries in Forest and Stream elicited one very circumstantial account of an enormous destruction of pigeons on the Gulf Coast, the birds being blown into the Gulf and destroyed by a fierce "norther" which beat down the coast for two or three days. Persons familiar with this phenomena of the Texas "norther" need no help to their imaginations in seeing how a pigeon flight, being caught on the shores of the Gulf by such a wind could be practically destroyed.

I do not know that you will think my theory worth any consideration, but I have finally interested a number of ornithologists who share my view that the final and sudden wiping out of the great bulk of the pigeon flight must have been by some cataclysmic agency. It seems to me that the question is one of great interest from the point of view of the naturalist and biologist, and well worth serious investigation by all who care for these things. I shall be pleased to know if what I have said seems to you of interest and to have any weight.

Wishing you all success in your admirable undertaking, and anticipating with great pleasure the results of your studies in your proposed book, I am.

Yours very truly,

C. H. Ames.

Memorandum prepared by Mr. Robert Ridgway, Curator of the Division of Birds, U. S. National Museum, to accompany letter to Mr. W. B. Mershon, Saginaw, Mich.

If Mr. Mershon will communicate on the subject of Passenger Pigeons with Mr William Brewster,[1] 145 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass., he may get some data which will (or ought to) dismiss from consideration the idea that the passenger pigeon could have been exterminated in the manner suggested by Mr. Ames. During a visit to northern Michigan, Mr. Brewster talked with a great many pigeon netters. I have forgotten the figures, and may be very inexact in my recollection of them, but my recollection is that at one "roost" there were one hundred netters who averaged one thousand (it may have been ten thousand) pigeons per day. When it is considered that this was the rate of destruction at one locality in one State only, that the same was going on in other States, and that tens of thousands were being killed by hunters and others, and this year after year, I cannot see anything surprising in the eventual extermination of the species, no matter how numerously represented originally.

Nothing in the history of the Passenger Pigeon is more certainly known than the fact that its range to the southward did not extend beyond the United States.

There is a single Cuban record, but the occurrence was purely accidental. The migrations of the Passenger Pigeon were wholly different in their character from those of true emigrants, that is to say, they were influenced or controlled purely by the matter of food supply, as in the case of the robin and some other birds, and the flights were as often from west to east and vice versa as from south to north or north to south; in short, the flocks moved about in various directions in their search for food or nesting places. For myself, I do not believe in the story of drowning in the Gulf of Mexico for two reasons. In the first place the birds are extremely unlikely to have been there, a hurricane from the northward being absolutely necessary to explain their presence in that quarter, and, in the second place, no such explanation is needed in view of what is known to be the facts concerning their wholesale destruction by human agency alone.

The range of the Passenger Pigeon was limited to the mixed hardwood forest region of the eastern United States and Canada, and any that occurred beyond were stragglers, pure and simple. Consequently it was not found, except as stragglers, in the long-leaf pine belt of the Gulf Coast, but only on the uplands from northern or middle Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, northward.

  1. See Chapter VII, "Netting the Pigeon" by Wm. Brewster.