Passenger pigeon

Extinct in 1941
  • Passenger pigeon
  • Passenger pigeon

The dramatic story of the Passenger pigeon: In only 100 years from the most common North American bird to its extinction.

The Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is an extinct pigeon that was endemic to North America. It inhabited the deciduous forests of eastern North America and bred primarily around the Great Lakes. The pigeon migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 to 5 billion. Probably it accounted for 25-40% of the total land bird population in the United States. One flock in 1866 in southern Ontario was described as being 1.5 km wide and 500 km long and the more than 3.5 billion birds took 14 hours to pass.

Stuffed Passenger pigeon@Paris NH museum

Stuffed Passenger pigeon@Paris NH museum(Click to view larger image).

As a communally roosting species, the Passenger pigeon chose roosting sites that could provide shelter and enough food to sustain their large numbers. Roosting places ranged in size and extent, from a few km² to 260 km² or greater. The pigeons roosted in such numbers that even thick branches on a tree would break under the strain and the pigeons’ dung could accumulate under a roosting site to a depth of over 0.3 m.

Passenger pigeons on natural history illustrations

Passenger pigeons on natural history illustrations①(Click to view larger image).

During the day, the birds left the roosting forest to forage on more open land. They flew 100-160 km away from their roost in search of food, leaving the roosting area early in the morning and returning at night.

Passenger pigeons on natural history illustrations② Passenger pigeons on natural history illustrations③

Passenger pigeons on natural history illustrations ②
(Click to view larger image).

Passenger pigeons on natural history illustrations ③
(Click to view larger image).

The birds fed mainly on acorns and beechnuts, but in summer on berries like blueberries and grapes and especially while breeding also on invertebrates. Additionally, the Passenger pigeon took advantage of cultivated grains, particularly buckwheat, and was especially fond of salt, which it ingested either from brackish springs or salty soil.

Band-tailed pigeon, which is closely related to Passenger pigeon Passenger pigeon on postal stamp

Band-tailed pigeon, which is closely related to Passenger pigeon
(Click to view larger image).

Passenger pigeon on postal stamp
(Click to view larger image).

As a very fast flyer the Passenger pigeon was physically adapted for speed, endurance and manoeuvrability in flight. The wings were very long and pointed. The tail was long and wedge-shaped, with two central feathers longer than the rest. The body was slender and narrow, and the head and neck were small. The pigeon had particularly large breast muscles that indicate a powerful flight. Therefore it is no wonder that the Passenger pigeon could reach 100 km/h.

Blankets of Passenger pigeons covered the sky, around 500km by 4 billion

Blankets of Passenger pigeons covered the sky, around 500km by 4 billion(Click to view larger image).

The species was sexually dimorphic in size and coloration. It weighed between 260 and 340 g. The adult male was about 39 to 41 cm in length, mainly bluish-grey on the upperparts, lighter on the underparts, with iridescent bronze feathers on the neck, and black spots on the wings. The two central tail feathers were brownish grey, and the rest were white. The lower throat and breast were richly pinkish-rufous, grading into a paler pink further down, and into white on the abdomen and under-tail covert feathers. The bill was black, while the feet and legs were a bright coral red. It had a carmine-red iris surrounded by a narrow purplish-red eye-ring.

Preserved egg of Passenger pigeon Martha, the last Passenger pigeon, alive in 1912

Preserved egg of Passenger pigeon
(Click to view larger image).

Martha, the last Passenger pigeon, alive in 1912
(Click to view larger image).

The female was slightly smaller, duller and browner than the male overall and the feathers on the sides of the neck had less iridescence. The lower throat and breast were a buff-grey that developed into white on the belly and under-tail coverts. Her legs and feet were a paler red. The iris was orange red, with a greyish blue orbital ring.

Passenger pigeon in LOST ZOO

Passenger pigeon in LOST ZOO
(Click to view larger image).

Passenger pigeons were hunted already by Native Americans, but hunting intensified in the 19th century after the arrival of Europeans who used the pigeons for sport shooting. Besides pigeon meat was commercialized as cheap food. Therefore the pigeons were hunted on a massive scale for many decades. Another factor for the decline and extinction of the species is the destruction of habitats by deforestation. A slow decline of the pigeon’s population between 1800 and 1870 was followed by a rapid decline in 1870-1890. The last confirmed wild Passenger pigeon has been shot in 1901. The fate of the Passenger pigeon is a warning that today ornithologists like Teruyuki Komiya, who have excellent experience in husbandry aspects, have to start with the breeding of endangered bird species long before their status in the wild becomes critical. But at the end of the 19th century the breeders had not such a good experience and divided the last captive pigeons in three groups, but because of their small number in the groups they did not breed successfully. The last Passenger pigeon “Martha” died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. It needed more than another 100 years until Passenger pigeons can be seen now the first time again in our LOST ZOO.

Executive Curator
JURGEN LANGE

Passenger pigeon

The Passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering 3-5 billion birds. The migrating flocks are described as being so dense that they blackened the sky. The flocks ranged from only 1m above the ground to as high as 400m, depending on the wind. The birds could fly quickly and adaptable through forests as through open space.

The Passenger pigeon was one of the most social land birds. When its population numbered 3-5 billion birds, it may have been the most numerous birds on Earth. But in the 19th century, after the Europeans arrived in North America, the pigeons were shot in such great numbers that their population was reduced in a few decades. Furthermore the deforestation by European farmers destroyed the pigeon’s habitat. So it is no wonder that at the end of the 19th century the Passenger pigeon was almost extinct.

Body length: 39-41cm.

Body weight: 260-340 g

Egg & clutch: Single white egg, measuring 40mm by 34mm.

Habitat: Decidous forest of Eastern North America and bred primarily around the Great Lakes. Within the range, Passenger pigeons constantly migrated in search for food and shelter.

Food: Mainly beechnuts, acorns and chestnut, but in summer also berries and softer fruits and invertebrates.

Extinction: Caused by overhunting by men and by habitat destruction by deforestation. In 1901 the last wild Passenger pigeon was shot and the last bird in a zoo died in 1914 at Cincinnati Zoo.

Animal Exhibition
Passenger pigeon