In A Nutshell
Up until the late 1800s, passenger pigeons traveled across America in billion-strong swarms hundreds of miles long. There were so many of them that they could flatten whole forests and strip the area free of every scrap of food. They were slowly hunted to extinction sometime around 1850 by professional hunters as a cheap and seemingly exhaustible source of food.
The Whole Bushel
In the 1800s, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America. There were accounts of passenger pigeon flocks so vast they blotted out the sky. Flocks so large that they could take up to two days to pass overhead. A living, breathing storm made of wings and feathers with up to two billion birds in flight all at once with a sound like rolling thunder over 320 kilometers (200 mi) long—this is how the passenger pigeon migrated.
Their ancestral breeding grounds were the great forests. When they landed on the forests, so many pigeons would nest in individual trees that huge swaths of trees would be flattened by their sheer weight. They’d strip the forest bare of every scrap of food. The amount of guano they’d leave behind made early settlers compare it to heavy snowfall.
Passenger pigeons had no real defense against predators, and the sheer numbers of their swarms meant that they’d often crush their young, knock them out of their roosts, or simply lay their eggs on the ground. All sorts of natural predators would prey on them, including Native Americans and early European settlers trying to protect their crops. But due to the fact that passenger pigeons were so abundant, their numbers would never dwindle.
Unfortunately the passenger pigeon’s greatest asset—its huge numbers—was also its downfall. They were a cheap, inexpensive and seemingly inexhaustible source of meat. Sometime around 1850, professional hunters began to slaughter them by the hundreds and thousands to provide food for slaves and the very poor. Catching them was no problem and was only a matter of walking into the swarm and picking up the slowest movers or the ones with broken wings. There was also the net. A single net could trap dozens or even hundreds of birds. Another tactic was to knock nests from trees, or simply set fire to the trees and wait for terrified chicks to jump to their death. Hunters could also just fire directly into the swarm—one (obviously exaggerated) account is that a single shot from a pistol killed over 70 birds.
They started to decline around 1850 because all their nesting grounds were staked out by people who slaughtered them almost instantly. Most of their ancestral breeding grounds were gone, and more and more of their chicks were killed each season. The last known passenger pigeon was named Martha Washington. She died while on display at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, making the most abundant bird in the United States—up to 40 percent of contemporary US bird life—gone forever.