The End of the Passenger Pigeon
Posted by Richard Conniff on September 1, 2012
Ninety-eight years ago today, what had once been the most abundant bird species in North America became extinct, when the last surviving Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), a female named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Passenger pigeons flew in dense flocks, for protection from their many predators. Cotton Mather once described a flock a mile wide that took hours to pass overhead. But that same safety-in-numbers strategy made them vulnerable to hunting by humans, who easily slaughtered them with shotguns and nets, and shipped the carcasses by the boxcar load to the cities as cheap food.
Here’s John James Audubon’s description of passenger pigeon courtship behavior:
The male assumes a pompous demeanor, and follows the female, whether on the ground or on the branches, with spread tail and drooping wings, which it rubs against the part over which it is moving. The body is elevated, the throat swells, the eyes sparkle. He continues his notes, and now and then rises on the wing, and flies a few yards to approach the fugitive and timorous female. Like the domestic Pigeon and other species, they caress each other by billing, in which action, the bill of the one is introduced transversely into that of the other, and both parties alternately disgorge the contents of their crop by repeated efforts.