Brief SummaryRead full entry
Larger and more brightly-colored than the related Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), the Passenger Pigeon would have been easily identified by its size (14-16 inches), long wings, and long, pointed tail. The male Passenger Pigeon had an olive-gray back, rusty breast, slate-blue head, and iridescent neck. Female Passenger Pigeons were similar to males, but were somewhat duller and browner. Before the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Passenger Pigeon was the most numerous species of bird in North America, if not the world. Between 3 and 5 billion Passenger Pigeons once inhabited the eastern United States and southern Canada. During the breeding season, massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons gathered to breed at a handful of locations in New England, the Mid-Atlantic region, the Ohio River valley, and the lower Great Lakes. Passenger Pigeon flocks rarely returned to the same breeding location more than once every several years as their breeding success was tied to long-term cycles of food abundance in that region. After the breeding season, Passenger Pigeon flocks wandered widely across eastern North America, arriving wherever food was abundant. Flocks sometimes strayed as far afield as arctic Canada, central Mexico, and Cuba. Passenger Pigeon flocks required large areas of old-growth deciduous forest in which to nest and feed. This species often did significant damage to the places it visited: Early naturalists recorded Passenger Pigeon flocks uprooting trees with their massive weight and smothering plants in the undergrowth with a layer of droppings several inches thick. Passenger Pigeon flocks ate massive quantities of seeds and tree nuts, including acorns, chestnuts, and beechnuts. Early naturalists observed flocks of Passenger Pigeons hundreds of miles long and several miles wide travelling from one feeding site to another. However, as European Americans moved west during the nineteenth century, humans began to exploit Passenger Pigeons and their habitat. Professional “pigeoners” shot countless Passenger Pigeons each year while loggers removed an ever-increasing amount of the old-growth forest this species needed to survive. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Passenger Pigeon populations crashed, and the species never recovered. The last wild Passenger Pigeon was shot in 1900, and the species became extinct when the last captive Passenger Pigeon, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.