Songbird Protection Coalition

Most Abundant Gamebird - Hunted to Extinction

The passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, once held the title of America's most abundant gamebird. The shear numbers were thought to be endless - several billion strong. The mourning dove, Zenaidura macroura, is the closest relative of the now extinct passenger pigeon. The two species look very similar, the mourning dove is comparatively smaller and less brightly colored.

The historical migratory flights of the passenger pigeon were spectacular. These birds flew with grace and maneuverability at an estimated speed of sixty miles an hour. Those who witnessed the flights reported the skies were darkened by the huge flocks that passed overhead.

The notable decrease of the passenger pigeon started when hunters began to "harvest" the 2 oz. breast as a delicacy. The real slaughter began in the 1800s and by 1850 the destruction of the pigeons was in full force. By 1860 it was noticed that the number of birds seemed to be decreasing, but regardless of the decline hunting was allowed to continue due to special interest profits and legislative lobbying.

Like the mourning dove, this Columbiform was hunted during part of its nesting season. In Michigan, hunting was extensively documented and it played a major role in causing the pigeon population to crash and eventually vanish all together. The main nesting area for the passenger pigeon was the region of the Great Lakes. One of the last known nesting colonies of passenger pigeons occurred in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878. Here 50,000 birds per day were hunted by shooters and this rate continued for nearly five months. When the adult birds who survived the massacre attempted a second nesting at new sites, they were soon located by the hunters and killed before they had a chance to fledge the young.

The concerned voices of conservationists and citizens had little effect in stopping the slaughter, special interests were profiting from the open season and they successfully stalled any protective legislation. Finally, a bill was passed by the Michigan legislature making it illegal to "take" pigeons within two miles of a nesting area, but the law was weakly enforced and few arrests were made for violations.

By the early 1890s the passenger pigeon had almost completely disappeared, and it was now too late to protect them by passing laws. Nonetheless, in 1897 a bill was introduced in the Michigan legislature "asking" for a ten-year closed season on passenger pigeons -- a gesture that proved completely futile as the surviving birds, as lone individuals, were too few to save the species from being lost forever.

The one valuable result of the extinction of the passenger pigeon was that it aroused public interest in the need for stronger and more effective migratory bird protection laws. New laws were passed and many other species of migratory birds have been saved as a result. The mourning dove is one of these species. It is no accident our forefathers banned the "hunting" of this songbird in Michigan, they saw first-hand what had happened to America's most abundant gamebird.

Special Note: Martha, the lone passenger pigeon, the last of her species, died at 1 pm, September 1, 1914, age 29, in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden. With her death, the status of the passenger pigeon was officially EXTINCT!

Source, including but not limited to: Smithsonian Institute, Chipper Woods Bird Observatory.