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Passenger Pigeon

Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), found by Dr. Paul Parmalee, unknown date, 0000.99.574.

The passenger pigeon was one of the most numerous birds in all of North America and a testament to the power that humans have over their environment. Before European interaction, passenger pigeons migrated frequently across the eastern coast of North America in huge flocks that were so dense they could blacken the sky. It is estimated that around 5 million of the birds existed before European arrival to the Americas. The pigeons were hunted in massive quantities even early in American history with a recorded 50,000 birds being sold at a Boston market in 1771, but the rapid decline of the birds was primarily in the 19th century. Hunting the passenger pigeon was hardly considered a sport due to how easy it was to kill. Shooters would lay down large amounts of grain along well known migration routes and wait. When an immense flock would arrive to feed, hunters would fire shotguns wildly into it. Large nets were also overly effective of harvesting the bird. A reported 50,000 birds were killed each day for nearly five months in Petosky, Michigan in 1878.

This unprecedented relentless hunting combined with the deforestation of the pigeon’s nesting grounds in the Great Lakes region, sealed their fate. Conservation efforts were too late (and often ignored by poachers and large hunting establishments) to help the floundering species. The last passenger pigeon named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1916.


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