Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

December 4, 2014

Audubon day: Tale of the passenger pigeon encourages conservation

PigeonOn the afternoon of Sept. 1, 1914, a 29-year-old passenger pigeon named Martha died in her enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her remains were shipped in a block of ice to the Smithsonian Institute, where her preserved body was put on display.

“It was a sad and telling end to a species that was so important and so large that no one thought could actually go extinct,” said historian Chris Kubiak of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania in a presentation at Hillman Library.

“It’s very rare in history that we can pinpoint the exact time and the exact place that a species went extinct,” he said, noting that the local Audubon group is part of a wider “Project Passenger Pigeon Pittsburgh” ( The initiative is part of a national effort to use the 100th anniversary of the extinction of what once was the continent’s most numerous bird species as an opportunity to encourage conservation and a sustainable relationship with the natural world.

Kubiak was the featured speaker at the University Library System’s Nov. 21 Audubon Day celebration. The annual event showcases the most valuable holding in the library’s collections: one of only 120 known complete sets of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.”

The book was produced 1827-38 as a four-volume set, based on extensive fieldwork. It contains 435 prints, depicting 497 species in a large-format “double elephant folio,” 27 by 40 inches. A set similar to Pitt’s sold for the equivalent of about $11.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2010. The University’s set has been digitized and can be viewed at

The “Birds of America” depiction of a pair of passenger pigeons was made in fall 1824, the only bird Audubon is known to have painted in Pittsburgh.

Despite his reputation for meticulous detail and extensive fieldwork, Audubon’s engraving, while beautiful, is biologically inaccurate, Kubiak said.

The lifesize depiction of a pair of passenger pigeons shows the female feeding the male — the opposite of the birds’ true mating ritual, in which the male would cuddle up to the female and feed her.

Kubiak said, “It’s amazing that a bird that was this abundant and played such an important role in the lives of early Americans was never really studied in a scientific manner,” he said.

“This bird that numbered in the billions — no one really thought to think about what its biological life and death was until the bird was gone.”


Passenger pigeons were beautiful birds, about twice the size of a mourning dove. Males had slate-blue backs and a cinnamon-colored chest.

The name passenger comes from the French passager, meaning to pass by in a fleeting manner. “These birds were built for speed,” flying at an estimated 60 miles per hour, Kubiak said.

Not everything about them was beautiful, however. They traveled in huge, noisy flocks, prompting evocative descriptions such as one account from the 1850s that appeared in the Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Commonwealth newspaper:

“Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, accompanied by as many steamboats, groaning off steam, with an equal quota of railroad trains passing through covered bridges — imagine these massed into a single flock, and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar. …”

Said Kubiak, “You could hear these birds from miles and miles away. When they roosted, sometimes the trees would be so heavy with pigeons that the tree branches would come crashing down, killing multitudes of them. This was a huge colony that had significant impacts on the land on which they lived.”

One so-called “pigeon city” in Wisconsin was estimated at 850 square miles — the size of 37 Manhattans. “They said you could smell it from 20 miles away,” said Kubiak.

“Their numbers were astounding,” totaling an estimated 1 billion-2 billion in the mid-1800s, said Kubiak. “In the mid-19th century it’s possible that up to almost half the birds in North America were passenger pigeons.”

In comparison, robins number around 300 million and rock doves — today’s common city pigeons — number about 250 million.

Audubon recounted his observation of a flock he encountered while traveling in Kentucky in 1813: “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose. …  Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession.”

Said Kubiak: “Audubon himself estimated this particular flock was roughly about 1.5 billion birds. It’s amazing to think that within 100 years this species could be almost completely gone.”

“This is a very important crossroads we are at right now in the biological world,” said Kubiak in his conservation-oriented message. “It’s amazing that a species such as the passenger pigeon — that numbered in the billions by the 19th century — was essentially gone in the wild 30 years later, and by 1914 was completely gone.”


Passenger pigeons’ key breeding grounds centered on the mast forests of the northeastern United States, including the beech forests that stretched across the northern tier of Pennsylvania.

Evidence of the birds’ impact in northwestern Pennsylvania is reflected in place names such as Forest County’s village of Pigeon, Pigeon Hill Church and Pigeon Hill School. Elsewhere in the state are Pigeonroost Gap in Bedford County, Pigeon Creek Cemetery and numerous Pigeon Runs, said Kubiak.

The pigeons’ range extended along the Rocky Mountains north into Manitoba, Labrador, and the shores of the Hudson Bay, and south to Louisiana, Texas, the Carolinas and northern Florida.

The birds fed mainly on mast trees, favoring beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts and hemlock, white pine and maple seeds. They also ate berries, grapes, cherries, earthworms and insects.

They also were a serious agricultural pest with a taste for buckwheat, wheat, rice, oats and corn — able to clean out acres of grain fields in minutes.

The birds themselves were a key source of food. “This was a cheap, important food source for people on the frontier,” Kubiak said.

Native Americans viewed the passenger pigeon in very important religious terms, with the Seneca’s name for the bird meaning “big bread” and the similar Lenape name translating to “great food source.”

When word would come that pigeons were roosting, entire villages would come to a halt, stopping everything in order to go hunt the birds, said Kubiak.

“The Senecas said you were not allowed to kill an adult bird while it was nesting,” Kubiak said. Instead they would knock the young birds, called squabs, from the nests, rendering the chubby birds’ fat and smoking the meat.

“They had the intelligence to realize that if you scare them off the roost while they’re nesting or attack the adults, it’s going to impact the population, so they focused on squabs primarily,” Kubiak said.

European settlers similarly would drop everything when a flock was spotted: “Everyone would get their gun.”  But they had no similar taboo on hunting adult birds, contributing to the decline in the passenger pigeon population.

Most commonly, passenger pigeons were trapped in nets in large numbers, Kubiak said, but one good shot into a massive flock overhead could bring down hundreds of birds.

By the late 1860s passenger pigeon populations began to crash, due in part to hunting by professional pigeoners, aided by the technological advances of telegraphs, which could be used to transmit flocks’ locations, and the railroads, which could be used both to transport hunters and to ship the birds to markets. Logging of mast forests also contributed to the decline, Kubiak said.

“We think it’s clear they obviously survived throughout history in lower numbers,” he said. “Man had to have been the main factor that tipped them over.”

By the 1890s passenger pigeons were scarce in the wild, spurring a perverse competition to be the hunter who shot and ate the last one, Kubiak said. The last wild pigeon was taken in 1902, although unconfirmed sightings in the wild were reported up until 1912.

If there is a positive side to the species’ extinction, it’s that calls for conservation began to rise in response. And while other species have become extinct — including the Carolina parakeet and Eskimo curlew — technology has advanced to the point where “de-extinction” may be possible.

The Long Now Foundation ( is using genomic technology in its first “Revive and Restore” effort to bring back an extinct species. The foundation’s “Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback” project uses DNA from museum specimens as well as from passenger pigeons’ close relative, the band-tailed pigeon, in hopes of producing live passenger pigeons.

The effort is controversial, Kubiak said, noting that the social aspects of the birds’ behavior will be nearly impossible to recreate. There’s also the question of how the bird will fare in a changed environment.

“Nature doesn’t stop because a species leaves. It goes on.” The landscape of western Pennsylvania is quite different from even 100 years ago, he noted. Forests are fragmented and some passenger pigeon food sources, including beeches, are declining. “It’s a very different environment. Is it going to be supportive of a large, viable passenger pigeon 2.0 population?” Some species adapt, but will this bird?

Biological ethicists are looking into the implications, he said.

Another concern about having the technological capacity for de-extinction is that it could “lull people into a false sense of ‘If we lose a species, we’ll just clone them and bring them back,’” a dangerous thought process, he said.

Regardless, the de-extinction effort is well on its way. “Whether we like it or not, it’s going to happen,” said Kubiak.

“Hopefully people will want to preserve the species we have now so we don’t even have to have this debate,” he said.

“We have a responsibility to the natural world around us,” he said. “Humans caused this issue, humans can help change it.” And there have been successes, he said, citing the increase in the local bald eagle population as one very visible example of how positive human intervention has saved a once endangered bird.

“The worst thing you can do is not pay attention and not be involved,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 8