Martha died Sept. 1, 1914. She was the last of her species, the last passenger pigeon.
Passenger pigeons were once the most numerous bird in North America. Estimates range from 3 billion to 5 billion passenger pigeons in North America when the Europeans first reached the New World.
Now there are none.
The scientific name Ectopistes migratorius combines the Greek word for wander and the Latin word for the one who migrates.
This species wandered over a huge range of eastern and midwestern forests and western prairies — from Texas into Canada, almost to Hudson’s Bay. It roamed from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River Valley and up along the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountain Front, as well as north into Canada. A few even crossed the Rocky Mountains.
Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition recorded in their journals seeing the passenger pigeon, even eating a few, along the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in what became Montana.
While pairs and small flocks were once common in Montana, in the East and as far west as Minnesota and Missouri, the bird once roosted and nested in the hundreds of thousands, even in the hundreds of millions.
“When these roosts are first discovered, the inhabitants from considerable distances visit them in the night, with guns, clubs, long poles, pots of sulphur, and various other engines of destruction,” bird illustrator Alexander Wilson described the scene of a slaughter in Kentucky in the first decade of the nineteenth century.
As settlers pushed westward, cutting the trees and draining the wetlands, the pigeons lost nesting and roosting sites. No matter where the birds migrated, local people and market hunters tracked and slaughtered them.
The railroad and telegraph made it easy to learn where the birds were and to bring the market hunters, both shooters and netters. The market hunters shipped the product — barrels of pigeon or coops of live pigeons — by train on a national market.
Pigeons were here in Montana when beavers still built dams that created the pools and meadows moistened the plains; before trappers removed the beavers. Pigeons were here when the trees lining the Missouri River and tributary streams were cut to fuel steamships moving up and down the river. Removing beavers and trees exposed soil to drying and eroding, and destroyed habitat used by the pigeons.
In September 1881 “numerous” pigeons were reported in several locations in Custer County, and the following September the Army telegraph operator at Fort Benton returned from a day’s hunt with 12 passenger pigeons.
In 1892 the state’s largest newspaper, The Anaconda Standard, reported that the passenger pigeon had been “utterly exterminated” in Montana.
Market hunters get a lot of the blame. But accessories were the organizers of shooting competitions who bought pigeons by the coop off the national market, up to 25,000 live birds, for major shoots out East. Organizers in Montana bought fewer birds, but they bought live passenger pigeons; for example, the Montana Territorial Fair of 1873 featured a trapshoot with live birds.
As the passenger pigeon declined in number, gun clubs turned to shooting newly invented glass balls and later clay pigeons, particularly Remington’s popular “blue rock” brand, as well as live pigeons raised in coops rather than wild passenger pigeons.
Extinction is forever. As The Anaconda Standard reported in 1899, “Gone, forever gone — the wild pigeon, a fable and a romance.”
Let’s conserve the remaining wild flora and fauna of Montana. Let’s do it for ourselves and future generations.
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