Thursday, July 31, 2014

Extinction: Passenger Pigeons In The Adirondacks

Adirondack Passenger PigeonOver the course of the past several years I have frequently paddled in the Raquette River -Tupper Lake area. A few weeks ago I paddled from the boat launch known as “The Crusher”, past the several camps where there was once a set of rapids, past the “Oxbow”; through “the Cut” into Simon Pond, and on to the New York State boat launch at Moody’s along Route 30. The day was sunny, and warm, with a slight breeze, and my fellow paddlers were great companions. It had been all-in-all a very and enjoyable paddle. But the present day description of the route is not what one would have experienced back in the 1850s.

In 1854, Samuel H. Hammond, a prominent attorney, newspaper writer and editor, State Senator and sportsman, wrote in Hills, Lakes, and Forest Streams: or A Tramp in the Chateaugay Woods (1854) about a sporting trip with his guide to Tupper’s Lake from Upper Saranac Lake. Hammond described a river that was considerably different, thanks to logging, blasting, damming, and flooding, than what we see today. One change Hammond would never have dreamed possible. 

Map of Tupper’s Lake 1879, Ely MapHammond wrote in his diary a few days later:

We were startled, in the gray twilight of morning, by a distant roaring; not unlike a waterfall, or far off thunder, but of both. We heard it several   times, at short intervals, and were unable to account for the sound, until as the light grew more distant, we saw the vast flocks of wild pigeons (passenger pigeons), winging their way in different directions across the lake (Tupper’s Lake), but all appearing to have a common starting-point in the forest, about a mile or more down the lake.

“I understand it all now,” said my guide; “there’s a pigeon roost down there, and Squire, if you’ve never seen one, let me tell you it’s worth going miles and miles to see.”

I had heard and read, of these brooding places of the wild pigeon, and was right glad to have an opportunity of judging of the truth of the statements in regards to them. We paddled down the lake, to a point opposite to where they seemed to be, and struck into the woods. We had no difficulty in finding it, for the thundering sound of the vast flocks as they started from their perches, led us on. About half a mile from the lake we came to the outer edge of the roost. [Probably the southern slopes of Mt. Morris] Hundreds of thousands of pigeons, had flown away that morning, and yet there were hundreds of thousands, and perhaps many millions, old and young, there yet. It covered acres and acres – I have no idea how many, for I did not go around it.

Female Passenger PigeonThe trees were not of large growth, being mostly of spruce and stinted birch, hemlock and elm, but every one was loaded with nests. In every crotch, on every branch, that would support one, was a nestful of young of all    sizes, for little downy things just escaped from the shell, to the full grown one just ready to fly away. The ground was covered with their offal, and the carcasses of the young in every state of decay. The great limbs of the trees outside of the brooding place, were broken and hanging down, being unable to sustain the weight of the thousands that perched upon them. Evidently the wild animals had fattened upon the unfledged birds, that had fallen from the nests, for we saw hundreds of half-devoured carcasses lying around. The hawks and carrion birds congregated about. We heard the cawing of crows, and the croaking of ravens in every direction, and saw them at a distance, devouring the dead birds on the ground. We saw dozens of hawks, and owls sitting upon the trees around, gorged with food, that flew lazily away as we approached. Every few minutes, would be heard the roar of a flock of the birds, as they started from among the trees.

After examining to our satisfaction, this wonderful exhibition of the habits, and the instincts of this truly American bird, we took from the largest of the nests, what would serve for our breakfast and dinner, and (re)turned to the lake. As we passed back, we saw, just outside the roost, two gray foxes stealing away into the thicket. These, and such as them, were having a good time of it that season, among the countless hosts of young pigeons.

We struck across to an island, some half a mile from shore where we breakfasted upon young pigeon broiled upon the coals. They were very fat and tender, and constituted a pleasant change from fish and venison, which, if the truth must be told, were becoming somewhat stale to us . . .

According to more contemporary accounts Samuel Hammond’s 1854 description of a passenger pigeon roost was very accurate. Of course what he did not see was the massive migration of the Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorus – named after the French word passager  for “passing by or passing over”) as they flew north from their southern wintering areas and splinted off into smaller breeding colonies or roosting grounds.

John James Audubon wrote a few decades earlier, “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of the noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of the wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.” He continued that the passing of pigeons lasted for three days. These birds numbered in the billions, an estimated 3 to 5 billion (not million but billion) passenger pigeons graced the skies by the mid- 1800s. One out of every four birds in North America is believed to have been a Passenger Pigeon.

There were large nesting colonies, such as the roost near Tupper Lake, all along the eastern and central states, around the Great Lakes and into Quebec and Ontario. As S. H. Hammond mentions, there was an abundance of free food for both wildlife and human consumption.

There are Amerindian sites in Central New York State dating back 4,000 to 8,000 years that include passenger pigeon bones, indicating that pigeons were a staple food during their spring and fall migrations. During the Colonial era there were numerous reports of pigeons being hunted for food, however, it was not until the advent of the railroad and the telegraph that extensive market hunting made its appearance. Using the telegraph, locations of pigeon nesting sites could be disseminated over a wide area and by railroad hunters could travel close to the roosting colonies.

Methods of hunting varied from gunning birds to netting; and the number of birds killed varied.   The result was that squabs (young birds still on the nests) and adults were killed in massive numbers, barreled, iced and shipped all over the United States as food. Some birds were caught live and used for trapshooting (before clay pigeons); others were killed just for their plumage. At the same time the American population was expanding, trees were cut for fields. And the major pigeon food source, the mast producing oak, beech, and chestnut forests, were diminishing. Farmers resented the loss of their seed crops to pigeons. Market hunting combined with habitat loss spelled doom for the passenger pigeon. Over an approximately fifty-year period (mid-1860s to 1914) a population of billions of birds plummeted to one. The last passenger pigeon, a female called Martha, died in captivity in the Cincinnati zoo on September 1, 1914. Just one hundred years ago.

This year (2014) marks a century of extinction for one of the largest bird populations the world has ever known, the passenger pigeon. Project Passenger Pigeon was launched to bring notice of this fateful passage and to bring focus to the lessons that should have been learned. Project Passenger Pigeon has sponsored the publication of a book A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg, and the release of David Mrazek’s film From Billions to None to document this tragic history.

In addition, an organization centered in California, Review and Revive, has announced its intention to revive the extinct species using cutting-edge DNA technology. The goal is to use ancient DNA (aDNA, DNA from museum collections) combined with the DNA from the current closest relative to the passenger pigeon: the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata). An offshoot of passenger pigeon DNA research is in the field of paleogenomics, which is the study of the passenger pigeons genetic past. Interestingly, recent indications are that the passenger pigeon had a long roller-coaster 120,000-year history.

Passenger Pigeon eggsMany questions remain unanswered. Was the passenger pigeon already on a fatal population downturn, exacerbated by over-hunting and habitat loss?   Was there a passenger pigeon die-off already in progress, as exhibited recently with the band-tailed pigeon in California in 2011 and 2012 ? How would de-extinction affect the present ecological system, since passenger pigeons have been absent for a hundred years ? More pressing and perhaps more immediate are not questions about passenger pigeon DNA or aDNA, but how we need to be aware of maintaining global biodiversity from endangered plants; to the poaching of elephants for their ivory; or the possible loss of the Ibis; or the collapse of the little brown bat population, to name but a few species declining, threatened, or gone.

Samuel H. Hammond had no way of knowing that his beloved Raquette River would one day go through its growing pains and changes to be the historic transportation and logging river that it became, and the recreational attraction that it is today.   Likewise, he had no way of knowing that the extensive passenger pigeon nesting roost that he witnessed would just disappear. S. H. Hammond would not want us to forget what was once so obvious, that we took it for granted.

More About Passenger Pigeons

All pigeons and doves are members of the order Columbiformes. In general pigeons and doves possess short stocky bodies with proportionally small heads. Both male and female birds have a bilobed crop that produces a sort of “milk” that is fed to the chicks. In addition they have thick feathers set close to the skin, and they exhibit monogamous mating behavior. There are 308 recognized species of Combiformes. Most of them are “show” pigeons or exotics.

The Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is not a close relative to Passenger Pigeons, although its coloration is similar and it is of the order Columbiformes. Mourning Doves are also much smaller. Currently the nearest relative to the passenger pigeon is the Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata).

There is much confusion in regard to the various types of pigeons. Carrier Pigeons, Homing Pigeons, and Racing Pigeons are all bred to return to their “home roost” in the most direct and fastest route. They are all derived from the Common Rock Pigeon (Columba livia). These pigeons are not Passenger Pigeons.

Photos from above:  A male Passenger Pigeon in the collections of the Adirondack Museum (photograph by Rick Rosen); Map of Tupper’s Lake (1879, Ely); a female Passenger Pigeon in the Pember Museum Collection (photograph by Mike Prescott); and Passenger Pigeon eggs in Pember Museum Collection (photograph by Mike Prescott).

A special thank you to Bernadette Hoffman, Museum Education, Pember Museum, Granville, NY. and Doreen Alessi-Holmes, Conservation and Collections Manager, Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, NY. for allowing me to photograph the passenger pigeon mounts in their collections.

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Mike Prescott is a former history teacher and secondary school principal who found a new retirement avocation in paddling Adirondack waters and exploring their history. Mike is a retired New York State Licensed Guide, and also volunteers with the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, the Raquette River Blueway Corridor, the New York State Trails Council and with the Adirondack Mountain Club. Feel free to contact him at

4 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    This is a great story. I have heard other stories (other than Audubon) about how these birds could blacken the sky during the day. Apparently the amount of birdie doo doo was also epic under these roosts!

  2. Marisa Muratori says:

    Makes me wonder if all those old taxidermied animals in museums can now mined for DNA for extinction reversal

  3. Hillel B says:

    Yes, an amazing and tragic story!!!

  4. Charles Herr says:

    An excellent story of the extinction of this pigeon is Allan Eckert’s “The Silent Sky”, told sadly from the eyes and voices of the birds themselves to their extinction in captivity at a zoo.

    Fulton Chain guide Ed Arnold, son of Otis Arnold, spoke of the changes in the region just prior to his death, recalling seeing flocks of the pigeons in the mid 1800’s now, 1906, no longer seen, as with Native Americans from St. Regis groups who also used to hunt in the Old Forge area no longer traveling through the Old Forge area.