“At the time that Europeans first arrived in North America,” according to Joel Greenberg’s book, Feathered River, “passenger pigeons likely numbered anywhere from three to five billion. It was the most abundant bird on the continent, if not the planet, and may well have comprised 25 to 40 per cent of North American bird life.” The birds were known for their great migrations with hundreds of thousands of them darkening the sky from horizon to horizon. These great swarms of passenger pigeons, named for their migratory habit of “passing through,” required substantial amounts of food, and a large flock could destroy a farmer’s grain crop in a matter of hours. As a consequence, they were shot by the score, trapped in nets, and indiscriminately clubbed to death while roosting.
After nearly 100 years of wanton killing, by the end of the 19th century, the species had disappeared from the face of the earth. Once so plentiful were the birds, that at their extinction, some naturalists could not believe that humans could have annihilated them and insisted that the pigeons had temporarily migrated to South America. One day, they assured the public, the birds would return.
The passenger pigeon was a distant relative of the rock dove, the birds we see on city streets and refer to as “pigeons.” These city scavengers are domesticated birds that were introduced to America, while the passenger pigeon was native to North America. In size and shape it resembled the mourning dove.
An early account of the passenger pigeon in Vermont occurred along the Connecticut River in 1760, after an outbreak of caterpillars in the valley on both sides of the river. The Vermont Journal reported, “those worms came in one night. They marched with great speed and ate up everything green for the space of 100 miles in spite of rivers, ditches, fires, and the united efforts of 1000 men.” One report describes a swath of destruction from Guildhall, Vermont to Northfield, Massachusetts. This improbable but well-documented tale suggests that an advantageous arrival of a large flock of pigeons allowed the settlers to harvest enough birds to supplant the crops lost to the infestation.
The inhabitants of Vermont would unavoidably have perished by famine in consequence of the devastation of these worms, had not a remarkable Providence filled the wilderness with wild pigeons which were killed by sticks as they sat on the branches of trees in such multitudes that 30,000 people lived on them for three weeks.
Abbey Hemenway’s Gazetteer (1882) noted their presence in Barre:
When the first settlers commenced to clear their land and raise wheat, the wild pigeons came in great abundance, so much so as to be quite a drawback, and it required great care and skill to protect the crops from their depredations. They might be seen at all hours of the day flying from point to point in different directions all about town. Thousands were caught by nets, but for the want of proper markets, were of little value, except what could be used by the inhabitants, and at some seasons of the year they were lean and scarce fit for the table. Uncle Brown Dodge, who was famous for his large stories, and told them so often he supposed them to be true, used to relate that once when he had sown a piece of wheat, he saw it covered with pigeons and went for his old fusee, and fired just as the pigeons were rising, and was aware of making an under-shot—“Never killed a pigeon, not a pigeon—but mind you,” said he, “I went into the field afterwards and picked up two bushels of legs.
The birds were a nuisance to farmers who trapped vast numbers in spring nets. According to the Barre Daily Times, the nets varied in size from two to ten yards long and were concealed under strewn hay. Long ropes were attached to powerful springs tied to each end, and a watcher was concealed in a blind with a rope in each hand. Near to the net was a stool where the “stool pigeon” was tethered. This tamed bird was a decoy used to attract his wild brethren. Grain was scattered in front of the trap to further attract the birds. When a wild flock approached, a rope attached to the stool was jerked about, causing the stool pigeon to flutter and attract the wild pigeons. As they alighted to eat the grain, the watcher pulled the ropes, and the net was sprung over the birds. Hundreds could be snared in a single sprung trap.
Samuel Williams’ The Natural and Civil History of Vermont (1809 records a similar narrative.
The following account was given me, by one of the earliest settlers of Clarendon.
The number of pigeons was immense. Twenty five nests were frequently found on one beech tree. The earth was covered with those trees.; and with hemlocks, thus loaded with the nests of pigeons. For an hundred acres together, the ground was covered with their dung to the depth of two inches. Their noise in the evening was extremely troublesome; and so great that the traveler, where their nests were thick, could not get any sleep. ‘About an hour after sunrise, they rose in such numbers as to darken the air.” When the young pigeons are grown to considerable bigness, it was common for the settlers to cut down the trees, and gather a horse load in a few minutes.”
The progress of civilization and refinement and the clearing of the hills and valleys have much lessened the number of these birds, or driven them to other regions.
The farmers and other early settlers harvested the pigeons in great numbers. The Burlington Free Press reported “that schooners loaded with the dead birds arrived at Philadelphia and New York, marketing their cargos of pigeons at a cent a piece and, when the human appetite was satisfied, they were used to fatten hogs. Concurrent with the excesses of market hunting, their roosts were demolished at an alarming rate. Not only was this a consequence of clearing forests to grow crops, trees laden with nests would be felled to take the unfledged squabs.
An elderly resident of Pomfret recalled the birds in 1897:
In autumn the Pomfret hills were covered with them and flocks containing many hundreds were continually passing from hill to hill. They were esteemed good to eat, but the flesh was ‘blue as a pigeon.’ Their note is similar to that of the blue jay. O. M. Chedel, in those days a mighty hunter, with a small shotgun fired into a flying flock and brought down six of them with one shot.
George Hoyles, another elderly Pomfret resident, declared ”that on coming home from beyond Teago he saw an immense flock of pigeons light upon a large tree, when there was such a great weight of them that it broke off every limb.”
In the Champlain Basin, it was reported in the Cottage Gazette (Plattsburgh 1851) that in two days “one million birds passed into Beekmantown, the flock covering four or five miles in length. Companies of pigeon catchers came from Massachusetts and other places and over 150,000 dozen were sent to city markets.”
In 1874 the Burlington Democrat noted flocks of pigeons on Mount Mansfield and Sterling Mountain: “If they should nest there, it will make autumn sport.”
But in 1907 Charles H. Horton of Saint Johnsbury noted dwindling numbers of the fowl. “It is not so many years ago that we had the wild pigeons with us in this locality. We have them no more.”
More than one naturalist assumed that the birds, mindful of the predations to their flocks, had fled the continental United States to live in safer circumstances. Stanley Waterloo in Recreation magazine declared “South America is their present habitat. With the instinct of knowing when a territory had become uninhabitable, it decided to return no more to the United States.” Of course, Waterloo was incorrect. The birds had been slaughtered and their roosts destroyed to the point that there was no longer the critical mass required for their survival.
Inadequate laws protecting the passenger pigeon were enacted, but it was a case of “too little too late.” Vermont was the first state to pass legislation to protect the birds. In 1851, a statute was enacted which prevented people from harming eggs or nests at the risk of paying a one dollar fine. It seems to have been seldom enforced.
In 1897 the Smithsonian Institution tried to obtain a living specimen, to no avail. As the Vermont Journal announced, “After the offer of a liberal reward and much correspondence, it has been concluded that the American wild pigeon is extinct.”
In fact “Martha” was the last living passenger pigeon. Born in captivity, she was the mate of “George,” and half of a pair intended for breeding at the Cincinnati Zoo. She and her cage mate were named for America’s first President and his wife, and lived amicably in America’s second oldest zoo, founded in 1873 (the one in Philadelphia was founded a year earlier.). George began to show signs of age-related infirmity and died in 1910. Martha lived for four more years and succumbed on September 1, 1914. Her remains were packed in ice and shipped to the Smithsonian where she is preserved as an ornithological specimen.
In St. Johnsbury, the Fairbanks museum has four of the extinct birds on display and one in storage. The exhibits include two tableaux. The first depicts endangered and extinct species and a pair of passenger pigeons are shown with a pair of Carolina parakeets. These two mounted specimens are most likely the work of a famous Vermont taxidermist named William E. Balch who created many of the exhibits at the museum. The second display is a “Victorian Bird Tree,” a diorama featuring a collection of birds perched on the branches of a tree, as might be imagined in nature. This exhibit dates from the mid to late 19th century and demonstrates the Victorian penchant for creating a context for the diorama. According to a museum label, this particular bird tree “displays 43 mounted specimens of New England birds.”
The fifth specimen is held in museum storage available for consultation by scholars. Collections manager Beau Harris cautions those who work with the materials to wear gloves and a facemask, as the birds are treated with substantial amounts of poison such as arsenic and strychnine. This is to prevent insect pests from damaging the mounted animals.