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Plate 62 of The Birds of America by John Audubon, the Passenger Pigeon. You might want to take a minute to read this, because while everyone has heard of the Passenger Pigeon, and its extinction, many don’t know the story, which is as amazing as it is sad. The one startling fact about Passenger Pigeons that all early and mid 19th Century naturalists wrote about were their unimaginable numbers. When Audubon painted this picture there may have been 5 billion -that’s billion with a ‘B’- Passenger Pigeons in the U.S. and Canada. One flock was estimated to have contained more than 3 billion birds. How many is that? If you’ve ever seen a flock of 1000 Starlings, close your eyes and multiply by 3 million. Can’t do it? Imagine a flock of birds so dense it darkens the sky, and takes more than 10 hours to pass by- and they had a cruising speed of 60 MPH, which sounds fast, but isn’t all that much faster than racing pigeons. As the Passenger Pigeon was a bigger bird, and could move more air per wing beat, that speed is entirely plausible. Audubon himself estimated that one flock he saw passed over him at a rate of 200 million birds per hour, a smaller flock at over 100 million birds per hour. There were more Passenger Pigeons in North America than there were people in the entire world at the time.
Less than 80 years later they were extinct. That may seem like a long time to some, but think of it this way- there were people born into a world with uncountable numbers of Passenger Pigeons, who were in their 30s when a slight decline was noticed, and still alive when they were extinct. How did it happen? Like most extinctions the exact cause is up for debate, but commercial hunting- hunting done as a business for profit- which was done on an unthinkable scale, certainly made the population plummet. The dead pigeons were sold as cheap food for the poor and slaves, and when people couldn’t eat anymore they were used as animal feed. They were sent east by the trainload. To get as many birds as possible they were hunted at their densely packed nesting sites, so a single shotgun blast could mortally wound a dozen birds. There’s one contemporary report claiming a hunter averaged more than 40 birds per round. If they were nesting close to water a single punt gun could kill many times that many. Shot birds were so thick on the ground that it was too labor intensive to pick them up individually, so the dead and dying were shoveled into baskets and sacks. Hunting nesting birds, of course, kills two generations of the species, but that didn’t matter because the resource was thought inexhaustible. It wasn’t. Nobody paid much attention when their numbers started to decline. When it was obvious there was a problem laws were passed to prevent commercial hunting, and the hunting of nesting birds, but they weren’t enforced until it was too late. The last known Passenger Pigeon died in 1914.