Now extinct, passenger pigeons once numbered in billions

Faunal extinctions are calamitous events. There is something tremendously unsettling about the passing of a species into oblivion, especially if there are local implications.

Such was the case with regard to the passenger pigeon, which officially became extinct a century ago. Historically, the bird was a prominent part of Ontario’s avifauna. Anecdotal evidence confirms it occurred in Ontario in enormous numbers.

Accounts of its historical abundance defy belief. In the 1840s, it comprised fully 40 per cent of the entire total bird population of North America. It bred in 45 of Ontario’s 55 counties, often at communal rookeries comprising tens of thousands of nests.

There is astonishing eyewitness evidence of its staggering numbers.

“A grand migration of passenger pigeons (took place at Niagara-on-the-Lake) including a flock one-mile wide and 300 miles long … that took 14 hours to pass by,” reported a soldier at Fort Mississauga in 1860.

In 1832, flocks of passenger pigeons migrated over Toronto for four consecutive days and Royal Ontario Museum records indicate the smallest of the flocks comprised 500-600 individual pigeons.

According to C.J.S. Bethune, in 1858 he encountered a 10-acre stubble field “literally blue with pigeons so thick that one could hardly see the ground.”

A huge pigeon rookery along both sides of the Speed River, from Guelph to Rockton, in 1835 had so many pigeons that “trees were broken down by the weight of the pigeons … (and) wagonloads were shot for food,” a local historian confirmed.

In addition to several rookeries in Oro-Medonte, a profusion of reports illustrate immense flocks at Blyth, Huron County, at Goderich, at Sunnidale, Simcoe County and in Guelph.

At Clearview, near Lake Huron, “vast clouds that darkened the sun” were reported in the mid-1850s. In 1870, pigeons were so plentiful that one market gunner reported he shot “400 before 10 a.m.”

Apparently, people back then thought the pigeon population was inexhaustible. According to researcher P.H. Ehrlich, “the birds were netted, baited with salt, shot at nests, clubbed, live-trapped and later shot in competitions … pigeons were sold for food for 50 cents per barrel.”

One market gunner reported he shot three million pigeons over a 30-year period. In 1878, at a Michigan pigeon rookery, 50,000 were shot each day for almost five months, according to Pete Petosky a former Michigan Department of Natural Resources official.

Eventually, the pigeons could not withstand the relentless slaughter.

The last surviving rookery in Ontario was confirmed near Kingston in 1898 (20 birds and 12 nests). Two specimens were collected at Toronto in 1890 and the last confirmed Ontario specimen was shot by Otto Reinecke near Niagara Falls in September 1891.

The last wild adult in North America was shot in Illinois on March 12, 1901.

Three captive passenger pigeons survived in the Cincinnati Zoo a few years later: one died in April 1909, another in July 1910 and the last living passenger pigeon (Martha) died on Sept. 1, 1914.

All that remain of the billions of passenger pigeons that once darkened the skies over North America are 1,535 skins and 16 skeletons.

Passenger pigeons were about 15 inches long. They fed on fruit, nuts, berries and seeds. Scientists think it might be possible to re-create the species using advanced DNA technology.

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