Passenger Pigeon

Ectopistes migratorius (extinct)

The Passenger Pigeon was also commonly known in North America as the "Wild Pigeon," the Ectopistes migratorius of ornithology, the bird so famous in former days for its multitude.  By the mid to late 1800s it was, and still occasionally to be found plentifully in some parts of Canada and the United States, though no longer appearing in the countless numbers that it did of old, when a flock seen by Wilson was estimated to consist of more than 2230million. Descriptions given by him and Audubon of Pigeon-haunts in the then "back-woods" of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana were often quoted. Wilson's estimate of 2230 million birds in that one particular individual flock was declared by Waterton to be a gross exaggeration if not an entire fabrication; but the critic would certainly have changed his tone had he known that, some hundred and fifty years earlier, Wild Pigeons so swarmed and ravaged the colonists' crops near Montreal that a bishop of his own Church was constrained to exorcise them with holy water as if they had been demons ("Voyages du Baron de la Hontan dans l'Amerique septentrionale", ed. 2, Amsterdam: 1705, volume i. pages. 93, 94. In the first edition, published at The Hague in 1703, the passage, less explicit in details but to the same effect, is at p. 80. The author's letter, describing the circumstance, is dated May 1687).

The rapid and sustained flight of these Pigeons was also as well-established as their former overwhelming abundance - birds having been killed in the State of New York whose crops contained undigested grains of rice that must have been not long before plucked and swallowed in South Carolina or Georgia.

Appearance of the Passenger Pigeon

The Passenger-Pigeon was about the size of a common Turtle-Dove, but with a long, wedge-shaped tail. The male was of a dark slate-colour above, and purplish-bay beneath, the sides of the neck being enlivened by gleaming violet, green and gold. The female was drab-coloured above and dull white beneath, with only a slight trace of the brilliant neck-markings.  There are several records of the occurrence in the UK of this Pigeon, but in most cases the birds noticed probably did not find their own way to British shores but may have travelled aboard ships, unknown to their human chaperones. One, which was shot in Fife in 1825, may, however, have crossed the Atlantic unassisted by man.

The Last Passenger Pigeon

The true total population of Passenger Pigeons in the world is estimated to have been around 4 billion. Within a period of around 50 years up to the late 1890s, wild passenger pigeons had been hunted to extinction, and only birds kept in captivity remained.  This mass destruction equates to around 250,000 birds killed each day in that period. The very last Passenger Pigeon to have fluttered on the earth was a bird called Martha who died at the age of 29 years old in the early afternoon of 1st September 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio, USA.  Martha's body was stuffed and mounted for preservation, and is currently (as at February 2008 when this page was last updated) kept by the Smithsonian Institute.  Sadly, these days all that are left for us to see of the Passenger Pigeon are a few stuffed examples similar to Martha.


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