Updated: Jan 18, 2022
John J. Audubon spent years of his life describing and painting birds for his book, The Birds of America, and ornithological biographies. He would wake up at 3 am every day, just to trek out to find them, and observe them through the afternoon, return home to paint and note down what he had seen, only to head back out in the evening to document some more, before bed. Most of these days were uneventful. Some times he would find a new specimen to observe, and even more rarely, he’d find a new species. But there was one autumn day in 1813 that stood out from the rest.
He wrote in one of his ornithological biographies,
“I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.
I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions when a Hawk chanced to press upon the rear of a flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the centre. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.”
The birds Audubon described were passenger pigeons. At the time that he attempted to dot out their flocks, passenger pigeons were the most populous species of birds on the planet, with an estimated population of somewhere between 3 to 6 billion birds, all of which were found between the American states of Wisconsin and New York.
When they moved, they shook the earth and darkened the sun. Great streams of muted blues and greys, iridescent purples, olive browns, like rivers in the sky, that passed overhead for hours, and days. A mile wide, 300 miles long, millions upon millions of birds, zipping along at over 60 miles an hour, right over the heads of the new European settlers, who were overtaking the central United States. It is said that if you stood under one of these cooing, writhing clouds, and fired a shotgun into the air, you could drop 60 birds with both barrels, and so, that's what they did.
In January of 1565, French explorer Rene Laudonniere and his men shot and killed over 10 thousand birds in what is now Florida, with nothing but primitive long guns, in less than 2 months. Settlers would send out their youngest children with guns and they would return with meat, enough to feed the entire family, in a matter of minutes. But it didn't stop at just that, they kept shooting, kept killing, and why wouldn't they? Times were hard, and the pigeons, plenty and delicious. Salted, pickled, smoked. The people under the birds killed hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of birds, but what more could be expected, in winters as tough as those, and protein as readily available as it was? There were just so many birds.
When the railway system came about, people from larger cities started flocking to these areas with dense pigeon populations. The meat was canned and sold, and live pigeons, trapped to be used as moving targets for shooters. Hundreds of hunters and trappers were employed full time to track and kill the lofts. They'd track down brooding sites, enter the areas with sticks, kicking down nests, to grab flightless juveniles. They started lighting firsts on fire, gathering the scorched remains as the embers cooled. They soaked oats in alcohol, to drunken them for easy pickings. They would capture one pigeon, sow its eyes shut, tie a string around its leg and place it upon a stool near a giant net. When the flock passes over, the trappers would pull the string, causing the "stool pigeon" to fall and flap to the ground, whereupon, the flock, thinking someone had found food, would land in the waiting nets, to be harvested by the thousands.
Towns lucky enough to be underwing were sending birds, by the millions, to packing plants, restaurants, grocers and butchers across the country. By 1876, there were so many pigeons riding the railroads that they cost more to ship than to sell, so trappers started delivering them alive, fresher, tastier, more expensive. Millions of cooing pigeons, making their way from here to there, but by land now, and without food or water. In the sky, they were dwindling, but no one seemed to notice.
By 1878, when the last large flock was discovered, and promptly slaughtered, Passenger pigeons were at fast risk of extinction, but no one seemed to care, and actively denied it. They believed that it was impossible for an animal to go extinct, as that would go against the fine balance of the Earth that God had created. If it were possible for one to disappear, then it was possible for any to disappear, which would mean that eventually there wouldn't be any animals left.
Another reason they refused to believe that the Passenger pigeons may disappear may be attributed to the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being was a theory that was put forward by Aristotle and Plato, later adopted by Elizabethan England, and eventually by the rest of Europe. The theory stated that there is a hierarchical structure of all matter and life started with God and the angels, followed by humans, animals, plants, and rocks at the bottom. Because of this order, you couldn't have things going extinct, because that would leave a hole in nature, causing all of creation to collapse.
In 1857, Ohio tried to pass a law to protect the birds, which was dismissed by the committee chair, as he believed that the birds were still too abundant to ever go extinct. While in 1848, Massachusetts passed a bill protecting pigeon trappers from any interference, with anyone that tried to protect the pigeons in any way, shape or form being fined $10. New York finally passed legislation in 1867, protecting the birds, a mere year before the last large flock was destroyed in Michigan. The Passenger pigeons were almost completely gone by 1869, yet even then, the American people refused to believe it. These were birds that left knee-deep dung under their flight path, that blotted out the sun, that cooed deafeningly, by the billions. Could any absence have been more conspicuous? Politicians tried to deflect the claims by stating that the birds had just absconded south to Mexico, or further south to Ecuador, or even Brazil, or towards the Atlantic, to live as seabirds somewhere out over the open ocean. They could be anywhere, anywhere but dead.
Extinction was no longer a concept people refused to believe by the 1890s. But they refused to believe that people could be responsible. People were just persons, and how could a person be blamed for billions of deaths? It was too incredible and too awful. Michigan placed a ban on netting pigeons within 2 miles of their nesting sites, in 1897. No nesting sites had been seen in two decades.
Hundreds of captive birds were kept in zoos throughout the United States and Europe. But they didn't breed well in captivity, and zoo-goers weren't interested in looking at a slightly more colourful Mourning Dove. Some efforts were put into their conservation, however, all of these efforts had failed by 1909. That left Cincinnati, Ohio and the Cincinnati zoo.
In 1875 Cincinnati zoo had about 25 pigeons. In 1902, they were contacted by a conservationist, who told them that they were the last bulwark left between the once most populous bird and their extinction. The zoo successfully bred one generation of pigeons, but their population, too, soon dwindled, until they were left with only one pair, George and Martha. After George's death in 1910, Martha became the sole surviving Passenger pigeon in the world.
Martha died alone and became the first-named member of an unenviable club of endlings.