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Sunday, February 28, 2010

GLEN VAUDREY: Another visit to The Savage World

So far (see yesterday) The Savage World had failed to notice that the extinction of one bird, the great auk, had already happened. However, regarding today’s bird, the passenger pigeon, the author seems to have been more on the ball.

‘The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is our best know American bird of the pigeon genera, though within the last few years it has so nearly disappeared that it is seldom seen except in the Indian Territory, where one or two large roosts are still visited. When a boy I have seen the pigeons flying overhead in such enormous flocks that the sky would be fairly shut out from view by their bodies for hours at a time. These migrations were very frequent, caused by the very great devastations the birds wrought, requiring almost constant change of place to produce food. It is perfectly within the bounds of reason to say, as did Wilson, that as many as a billion wild pigeons have been seen to pass over a single course in three days, and that the consumption of food by these birds in the same time was equal to seventeen million bushels. Incredible as their numbers were twenty-five years ago, only a bare remnant now remains and within a like period they will probably become extinct. So quickly do they leave their feeding places and so great is their speed of flight that specimens have been shot in the northern New York with crops yet filled with rice taken from the savannas of the far South. As digestion is accomplished in these birds in less than twelve hours, the distance of more than one thousand miles must have been traversed in less than that brief time’

While sightings of wild passenger pigeons crept all the way up to 1930 it is unlikely that any actually managed to hang on that long. Certainly the last captive example, Martha, died on 1 September 1914 at Cincinnati Zoo. As an example of both the numbers of birds involved and the scale of the slaughter it is recorded that in 1878 at a site in Petoskey, Michigan, there was a daily slaughter of 50,000 birds that carried on for nearly five months, perhaps then it is hardly surprising that the author could see that the end was nigh for the passenger pigeon.

1 comment:

Retrieverman said...

I know of a stand of ancient oaks and a few white pines that stands upon a rather steep hill. Its name is "pigeon roost," for this was one of the places where the passenger pigeons would roost in vast numbers.

You might find some mourning doves roosting there today.

But the pigeons are long gone.

Too many of them were shot for restaurants. The original "bushmeat" trade began in the United States in the nineteenth century. The fanciest restaurants would serve up all sorts of wild game. Many animals nearly went extinct from this "market hunting." The white-tailed deer existed only a few remote mountainous areas. The Eastern wild turkey was brought back from the brink only when new blood from flighted domestic breeds was added to the gene pool.

Now, both wild turkeys and white tailed deer are quite numerous. In fact, white tailed deer are pretty close to being overpopulated in some areas.

But the passenger pigeons couldn't withstand such hunting pressure. They were colonial breeders. It is well known that domestic pigeon hens won't lay eggs unless they can see another pigeon. If she can see her own reflection, that will be enough. Passenger pigeons needed to see a huge colony before they would breed. When the colonies got cut down, they lost that important stimulus to reproduce.

And that's why they went extinct.