The Extinct Bird That Swarmed By The Billion

“I was always a lover of soft-winged things.” —Victor Hugo

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.

Show Me The Proof

The Revival of the Passenger Pigeon?
Extinction of the American Passenger Pigeon: The True Story

  • Eric Vincent


    • QuotationStation

      I have a hard time reading that comment next to that picture.

      • rhijulbec

        Me too. lol the picture…sad story.

  • inconspicuous detective

    is anyone really surprised that humans once again destroyed one of nature’s beauties?



      After a while of it you kind of get used to things.

  • rhijulbec

    So sad what we do. I don’t think anything is forever with humans to hunt it, mine it or pump it out of the ground. Why DO we act like things will go on forever?

  • stingray68

    Our epitaph as a species will be that we were the planet’s champion killers. Tyrannosaurs and Great White Sharks have nothing on the wholesale slaughter we mastered to a fine art.

  • Provoke The Mind

    The Earth has been here for a long time. Apparently, it’s 4.6 billion years old. Do you get that? That means that in the time between when the Earth was created and now, stars have been born, and escaped the universe in frivolous displays of energy and light. Millions of planets have been created and millions more sent to their demise. In that vast scheme of time, nature has evolved and prospered, giving way to new and better life, each surpassing the previous in its’ ruthlessness and superiority. Nature is a suicidal mistress, and she has finally, in the last cosmically-speaking blink of an eye, pulled the trigger. In the past 50,000 years, a mere snap in the hands of the Earth, she has pulled the trigger, by perfecting her creations- she has created the perfect, soulless monster, the one who is doomed to tear down all her creations until the monster is all alone, cowering in the dark, waiting for its own inevitable end.
    She made us.

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