This little bird in its glass case is a sad reminder of man’s influence on nature, and it is fitting that it is displayed near the extinct Jurassic reptiles on display at Whitby Museum.
The passenger pigeon (ectopistes migratorius) was a native species of North America. Said to have been the most numerous birds on earth, certainly in the Americas, there have been as many as five billion birds, flying in enormous flocks. One flock recorded in 1866 in southern Ontario was said to be 1-mile-wide and 300 miles long!
Sadly, this may be the only species for which the exact date of extinction is known: September 1, 1914.
Our specimen is not unique but is very rare outside the US.
Among game birds, the graceful and speedy passenger pigeon was second only to the turkey in importance for Native Americans.
After colonisation it became an important source of food on the frontier, and some colonists relied on the pigeon to supplement their meagre crops. Yet it was these same colonists who cleared forests and introduced crop farming that seems mainly to have contributed to the decline.
Passenger pigeons depended on the huge hardwood forests for their spring nesting sites, for winter roosts and for their diet of nuts, seeds and insects. Pigeon meat also became fashionable in major towns, trapping and shooting such big business, that by the end of the 19th century there were no wild birds remaining, and all attempts to breed them in captivity failed.
A few birds survived in captivity, until Martha, thought to be the world’s last living passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914 at Cincinnati Zoo.
However, there is an upside to the story; the extinction of the passenger pigeon aroused great public interest in conservation, and began movements which flourish today to try and protect vulnerable species.