WSW: How Passenger Pigeons Went from "Billions to None"

Apr 16, 2014

Male (left) and female passenger pigeons, in illustration.
Credit Joel Greenberg / Project Passenger Pigeon

Passenger pigeons once outnumbered all other birds in North America. When migrated they moved in huge flocks, sometimes comprising more than a billion birds. The largest nesting ever recorded covered 850 square miles.

That was in 1871. Just a few decades later, passenger pigeons were all but gone from the wild.

By the end of 1914 they were extinct.

How a species with billions of members could die out in the space of 50 years is the subject of author and naturalist Joel Greenberg’s new book, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extincton.

“It’s a cautionary tale to the proposition that no matter how abundant something is, be it fuel, water or something alive, if we’re not good stewards we can lose it,” he says. That’s because in this case, “relentless” hunting by people is what led to the extinction.

Greenberg will discuss his research into the decline of the passenger pigeon at the Kalamazoo Audubon Society on April 28 at 7:30 p.m.

Passenger pigeons looked a bit like “mourning doves on steroids,” says Greenberg. The male had brilliant red coloring; the female was more subdued.

"No matter how abundant something is, be it fuel, water or something alive, if we’re not good stewards we can lose it."

They weighed about ten ounces apiece and were remarkably agile in flight. Before their numbers declined, they were a defining feature of natural life in North America. Their typical range extended across eastern third of the U.S. and Canada.

“They’re best known for these breeding and roosting areas where hundreds of millions of bird with gather, and so in migration they would form huge flights,” Greenberg says.

He cites an account by John James Audubon of a three-day trip during which the sun “was eclipsed by flights of pigeons for the entire three days.”

“They were always moving,” he adds.

And where they came down, they had a transformative effect.

“Enough of them would land in big oaks, say, where the branches would break and there were accounts of trees almost tipping over from the weight of these birds,” Greenberg says.

Whether people were glad to see them depended on when they showed up. Sometimes a flock came in just in time to eat newly planted seeds, though Greenberg says they tended to pass up fields when natural food was available.

Other times, the timely appearance of a flock of pigeons just after a crop failure would save a community from famine.

Greenberg says their great benefit as food was that they were cheap – “the cheapest terrestrial protein,” at pennies a pigeon. But they also made it onto the menu at some major nineteenth-century banquets, and at Delmonico’s in New York, “arguably America’s first great restaurant.”

“The gourmets used them – and the poor used them to stave off starvation,” he says.

Author Joel Greenberg with a stuffed passenger pigeon.
Credit Joel Greenberg / Project Passenger Pigeon

It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the pace of pigeon hunting accelerated and started the bird’s “spiral to extinction,” says Greenberg.

Before that, “because [the pigeons] were moving around for food, they would often be absent from an area for years at a time. And so because they were constantly moving, people hunted them but they were really – it wasn’t possible to chase them,” he says.

That changed with the introduction of two technologies: the telegraph and the railroad.

“The railroad meant that wherever the birds showed up – in the Upper Peninsula, in the Ozarks of Missouri, even if it was in an out-of-the-way place, if you could take the dead birds that you’d killed – that you’ve hunted – to a rail station,” he says.

“You’d put them in barrels, 300 birds to a barrel, pack it with ice and then you could send it out to the urban markets of the Midwest and East.

“The telegraph meant that the whereabouts of the birds could be monitored throughout the year. In fact, telegraph operators were specifically instructed to send that information out,” he says.

That led to anywhere from 600 to 3000 hunters “doing nothing but spending the entire year chasing the pigeons.”

The effects of their “relentless” shooting and netting were evident by 1878, the year of the last big nesting. It happened in Petoskey and counted about 60 million birds, whereas the 1871 Wisconsin nesting had encompassed more than 135 million.

The last wild passenger pigeon was captured near Laurel, Indiana in 1902. The species survived a few years longer in captivity. The last known passenger pigeon was a female named Martha, who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo and died on September 1, 1914.

Some people never accepted that humans had caused the extinction, Greenberg says. Stories abounded about a mass pigeon exodus to Chile or Australia. Henry Ford believed they had tried to flee to Asia and had all drowned in the Pacific Ocean.

But for others, the loss led to awareness about just how profoundly humans could shape the environment. Ultimately it helped to spur some of the nation’s most important conservation laws.


Sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans and Kirtland’s warblers are some of the species that have returned from endangerment and near-extinction thanks to intensive efforts to save them, Greenberg says.

Kirtland’s warblers, which range entirely within a portion of Michigan, have “finicky” habitat needs. Despite this, people have learned how to accommodate and maintain them.

“It requires making sure that the trees they like are a certain height, it requires removing brown-headed cowbirds which parasitize the warblers, and that costs a million dollars a year,” he says.

“If we spend a million dollars a year, we can maintain Kirtland’s warblers’ numbers. If we decide at some point that it’s not worth it then the Kirtland’s will probably become extinct.”

In addition to promoting the book, Greenberg is co-leading Project Passenger Pigeon, which seeks to use the hundredth anniversary of the extinction as a teaching moment.

He’s also helping to produce “From Billions to None,” a documentary version of the story.