Our culpability in the demise of the passenger pigeon

The general story we get from our history lessons is that there were once so many passenger pigeons flying around, the sky was black with them.

But our heinous, bloodthirsty ancestors, when they weren’t busy wantonly destroying the buffalo, took pot-shots at passenger pigeons until they eventually went extinct.

Is this true?

It seems hard to believe. I can’t imagine the bird would have any food value. So it would have basically been shot for sport and nothing more. If there were really that many of them, it seems there would have needed to be a lot of people doing a lot of senseless shooting. Why would they single out this particular bird?

Sounds fishy to me. What’s the Straight Dope?

Our predecessors here in Wisconsin were partially culpable. They used to use giant shotguns, something like a 4 gauge, called a ‘punt gun’ to blast 'em out of the trees. IIRC, they were used to feed hogs and other livestock. * A Sand County Almanac* by Aldo Leopold has a great section on this bird and it’s extinction.

Better than that. Pigeons were caught and nailed through the feet to stools so other pigeons would come down to be shot. Hence the term ‘stool pigeon’. Pigeons have as much food value as chickens. You just have to kill a few more. Yep, it’s true. They paved paradise with the bones of the buffalo (or maybe it is American Bison) and passenger pigeons.

From Encyclopedia Americana

Encyclopedia Britannica, on the other hand, declares unequivocally that the birds were “hunted to extinction by man.”

Didn’t we also raid their nests like crazy to get the tender little squabs? They were like gourmet food, all the best restaurants server them.
mmmmmmMMMMMmmmmmm, Squabs.

How come the conservationists weren’t able to save a few when it was realized that they were close to extinction and rebuild their numbers like was done with the buffalo? Surely there were those who tried to save a few, what happened? Why were none able to be save?

Since this thread is staggering around like a blindfolded drunk, it can’t hurt too much if I add my halfbaked two cents.

I once heard that the pp’s needed – I don’t know why – a sort of critical mass to thrive. Once their numbers diminished to a certain point, presumably through hunting or lost breeding grounds, the enture population count plummetted and went extinct. Why they needed such vast numbers to survive as a species is beyond me (did they hunt buffalo?), but that’s what I heard.

Hey, where’s the board’s resident 44 year-old NJ bird expert?

I too remember reading that the passenger pigeon was one of those communal animals that needed to be in huge numbers to breed and that habitat destruction of the forests was at least as destructive to them as shooting them. Even though “the sky was black with them”, the ground underneath the enormous flocks was “whitened”. Might not be a good idea to revive them in their former numbers, or if you do, at least have an umbrella when they pass overhead.

quick internet search…

Damn, ChiefWahoo, you Wisconsinites are cold.

This is one reason that there are organizations like “Ducks Unlimited” – they aim to preserve Ducks (for hunting, it’s true. But they do, indeed, want to preserve them). We don’t imagine that Ducks could become extinct. There are just so many of them, right? But that’s exactly how they felt about the Passenger Pigeon.

When I as a kid ion the 1960’s I recall every fall watching HUGE flocks of birds migrating – you could see veritable RIVERS of them in the sky, broad swaths of birdflocks so high that the individual birds were dots with wings, filling the sky from north to south. They didn’t fill it from side to side, but we’re not talking about a thin thread of black in the sky – the flocks were huge moving ribbons of birds.THAT is what I imagine the sightings of passenger pigeions must have been like. It bothers me that I have not seen such a sight in man years.
I’m not talking about ancient history here – this is less than forty years ago. I don’t know what kind of birds they were making up those flocks – they literally were too far away to see. But how many species are following the Passenger Pigeon into oblivion?

Updating this thread:

Good News, the passenger pigeon may be coming back!

My Great-Grandma had a recipe in her file for ‘pigeon pie’, so there must have been some food value in them. Presumably, they had less meat than a chicken. (But then, chickens back then weighed about half what a modern meat chicken weighs.)

Passenger pigeons weighed 12-14 ounces, or almost a pound. While this is considerably less than even a Cornish Game Hen, it’s bigger than game birds like Bobwhite Quail and Green-winged Teal, and much bigger than the doves like Mourning Doves that are popularly hunted today. The species had a great deal of food value, especially since huge numbers could be harvested with minimal effort.

Quite a lot of the killing wasn’t for food, merely “sport.” Mass gatherings took place of humans shooting passenger pigeons as fast as they could in awesome numbers.

The author of 1491, Charles Mann, has proposed that the vast passenger pigeon populations Europeans encountered were something of an anomalous surge. There’s little evidence for such huge numbers before European arrival. Mann already speculated (with some evidence) that Native Americans managed the forests (by burning, mostly) to their own advantage. He proposes the idea that the vast dying off of native populations due to introduced European diseases (known to be 90-95% of the population) left an empty, artificial wilderness, suddenly managed by no one, and passenger pigeon population exploded dramatically in the ecological vacuum.

That implies that the population was due to fall back to normal levels at some point, but invading Europeans killing them in huge numbers pushed them over the edge during the period of decline.

Passenger Pigeons wouldn’t breed unless there were mass of them around. Today, we could likely do something, like fake it or use artificial insemination or something.

Back then, they were pretty ignorant.

The main cause of the extinction wasnt hunting, but was the destruction of the huge swaths of hardwood forests that was the home of the birds.

wiki: The main reasons for the extinction of the passenger pigeon were the massive scale of hunting, the rapid loss of habitat, and the extremely social lifestyle of the bird, which made it highly vulnerable to the former factors. Deforestation was driven by the need to free land for agriculture and expanding towns, but also due to the demand for lumber and fuel. About 728,000 km2 (180 million acres) were cleared for farming between 1850 and 1910. Though there are still large woodland areas in eastern North America, which support a variety of wildlife, it was not enough to support the vast number of passenger pigeons needed to sustain the population. In contrast, very small populations of nearly extinct birds, such as the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) and the takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri), have been enough to keep those species extant to the present. The combined effects of intense hunting and deforestation has been referred to as a “Blitzkrieg” against the passenger pigeon, and it has been labeled one of the greatest and most senseless human-induced extinctions in history.[31][3][120] As the flocks dwindled in size, the passenger pigeon population decreased below the threshold necessary to propagate the species.[153]

Even if not a single bird was hunted, likely the PP odd lifestyle combined with loss of habitat would have caused its extinction. Mind you , of course the hunting didnt help.

In case anyone besides me was wondering:

“The passenger pigeon or wild pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is an extinct species of pigeon that was endemic to North America. Its common name is derived from the French word passager, meaning “passing by”, due to the migratory habits of the species. The scientific name also refers to its migratory characteristics.”

Ditto for dodos. They were big, meaty, and easy to catch. Sailors would stop by and grab a few hundred to salt down for provisions.

Humans, yes but not so much hunting. Rather introduced species and deforestation.

wiki:*Although some scattered reports describe mass killings of dodos for ships’ provisions, archaeological investigations have found scant evidence of human predation. Bones of at least two dodos were found in caves at Baie du Cap that sheltered fugitive slaves and convicts in the 17th century, which would not have been easily accessible to dodos because of the high, broken terrain.[10] The human population on Mauritius (an area of 1,860 km2 or 720 sq mi) never exceeded 50 people in the 17th century, but they introduced other animals, including dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and crab-eating macaques, which plundered dodo nests and competed for the limited food resources.[43] At the same time, humans destroyed the forest habitat of the dodos. The impact of the introduced animals on the dodo population, especially the pigs and macaques, is today considered more severe than that of hunting.[92] Rats were perhaps not much of a threat to the nests, since dodos would have been used to dealing with local land crabs.[93]

It has been suggested that the dodo may already have been rare or localised before the arrival of humans on Mauritius, since it would have been unlikely to become extinct so rapidly if it had occupied all the remote areas of the island.[57]

I personally have no culpability in the Passenger Pigeon’s fate. Though I was born a long time ago, the last one was gone before even my evil dad was born.