Tim Eisele: UW professor celebrates passenger pigeon, laments its extinction

Tim Eisele: UW professor celebrates passenger pigeon, laments its extinction

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Martha the passenger pigeon

 Martha, the last passenger pigeon known to exist in America, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Its body was mounted and has been on display at the Department of Interior museum in Washington, D.C. 

There once were millions of passenger pigeons. Today there are none.

And 100 years ago this year, the last passenger pigeon known to exist in the world died.

That bird, named Martha, passed away in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914.

Ever since, people have wondered how humans could have been so callous to let this happen.

Stan Temple, emeritus professor of wildlife at the University of Wisconsin and fellow of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, is helping people remember the extinction of passenger pigeons during this anniversary year.

“This is a sad but important centennial that, 100 years ago, the most abundant bird on the continent went extinct,” Temple said. “And now, 100 years have passed and people have forgotten.”

Three years ago, more than 160 organizations formed the Passenger Pigeon Project to remind people of the lessons learned from the passing of the pigeons.

Participating in the Project, Temple told the story to the Madison Audubon Society in February and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative in March.

The passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, with an estimated three to five billion birds.

John James Audubon estimated in 1831 there were some two billion passenger pigeons.

Much of what is known today about passenger pigeons was researched by the late A.W. Schorger, who spent several years researching old newspapers in the Wisconsin Historical Society to piece together a history of the demise of the pigeon.

Schorger’s book, “The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction,” was published in 1955. It records the life history and disappearance of a bird that people used to shoot, trap and catch with nets and ship to commercial markets by wagon loads.

One of Schorger’s accounts tells of a period of six weeks when shipments of pigeons from Wisconsin Dells averaged 75 barrels a day by rail to markets. Since a barrel held 528 birds, this would have been about 1.4 million birds annually sent to markets and restaurants.

The pigeons were common in the eastern half of America. They were nomadic in search of mast, especially acorns and beech nuts.

The Great Lakes states, especially Wisconsin and Michigan, were prime nesting areas where the birds were sedentary in large colonies for the month-long nesting period.

Trouble began in the mid-1800s when about every nesting attempt was pillaged by market hunters. Passenger pigeons were considered an inexhaustible natural resource.

Temple said massive killings of the birds disrupted the nesting season. Adult and nestlings were killed.

Two things that facilitated the killings were the telegraph, allowing people to learn where large concentrations of birds were nesting, and the railroad.

Railroads brought market hunters to nesting areas and facilitated shipments of dead birds to market.

Temple said that in the mid-1800s, there were about 10,000 people who described themselves as pigeoners: market hunters of passenger pigeons.

Wisconsin had the largest nesting of passenger pigeons ever recorded in 1871. It took place in west central Wisconsin from Black River Falls down to Wisconsin Dells and north to Wisconsin Rapids.

The nesting covered 850 square miles and birds were said to be nesting in virtually every tree. This is memorialized with a Wisconsin Historical Society plaque on Interstate 94.

As the 1800s faded away, so did the pigeons. The last passenger pigeon to be killed in Wisconsin was recorded at Babcock in September 1899. It is in memory of this bird that a plaque was erected at Wyalusing State Park in Grant County.

Aldo Leopold spoke at the dedication of the plaque in 1947, saying, “We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.”

Temple is sometimes asked why people weren’t aware of what was happening. He believes people were in denial that the pigeon was going extinct because there had been so many.

Some people believed the birds died while flying across the ocean.

Although nothing was done to prevent extinction of the bird, it sparked concerns. Laws such as the Lacey Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act were passed. It helped to bring about the progressive conservation movement of the 1900s.

The plight of the passenger pigeon is a tragedy, but it underscores reasons to refrain from weakening today’s Endangered Species laws.

“We should not let it happen again,” Temple said.

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