Thursday, May 5, 2011

Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)

In the late nineteenth century, anybody who suggested that the passenger pigeon was in danger of imminent extinction would have been branded a fool. The passenger pigeon existed in such colossal numbers that it is astonishing that it is no longer with us. The species as so numerous that there are many accounts of the bird itself and the enormous flocks in which it collected. Estimates for the total number of passenger pigeons in North America go as high as 9 billion individuals. If these estimates are anywhere near the true number, then the passenger pigeon was undoubtedly one of the most numerous bird species that has ever lived. This enormous population was not evenly spread, but was concentrated in gigantic flocks so large that observers could not see the end of them and so dense that they blocked out the sun. Some records report flocks more than 1.6 km wide and 500 km long—a fluttering expanse of hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons. We can only imagine what one of these flocks looked like, but we can be sure that it was quite a spectacle.

Apart from its propensity for forming huge flocks, the passenger pigeon was quite similar in appearance to a domestic pigeon, although it was considerably more graceful, with a slender body and long tail. Most pigeons are built for speed, but the passenger  pigeon was a real racer. Its tapering wings, powerful breast muscles, and slender body gave it a real turn of speed. There is anecdotal evidence that these birds could reach speeds of 160 km per hour, although they usually flew at 100 km per hour. The aerial abilities of the passenger pigeon came in very handy as it was a migratory species. As the summer arrived in the northern latitudes, the birds would leave their wintering grounds in southern North America and head for the lush forests of the United States and Canada, although their aggregations appeared to be particularly dense on the eastern seaboard. They came to these immense forests (only remnants of which remain today) to raise young on a diet of tree seeds (mast), forming huge nesting colonies in the tall trees. As with most pigeons, the nest of the passenger pigeon was a rudimentary aff  air of twigs that served as a platform for a single egg. The parent birds nourished their hatchling on crop milk, the cheeselike substance secreted from the animals’ crops that is unique to pigeons.

This cycle of migration had probably been going on for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years, but all was about to come to an end as Europeans fi  rst arrived in the Americas. Their arrival signaled the end for the passenger pigeon, and many more species besides. Europeans, in their attempts to settle these new lands, brought with them new ways and means of growing food. The forests were hacked down to make way for these crops, and the passenger pigeons were quick to exploit this new source of food. Settlers fi  rst killed the passenger pigeons to protect their crops, but they soon realized that these birds were a massive source of nutritious food, and the slaughter began in earnest. The adult birds were normally preyed on when they were nesting. Trappers equipped with nets constructed smoky fi  res beneath the nesting trees to force the adults into taking flight. Trees with lots of nests were cut down, enabling trappers to get their hands on the young pigeons. The slaughter was senseless and wasteful, with often only the feathers of the birds being taken to be used as stuffing. Of course, the birds were valued as cheap food, and millions of birds were taken by train to the big cities on the East Coast of the United States. It has been said that during the end of the eighteenth century and for much of the nineteenth century, servants and slaves in these big cities may have eaten precious little animal protein apart from passenger pigeon meat. For several decades, passenger pigeons ready for the oven could be bought for as little as three pennies.

By 1896, only 250,000 passenger pigeons remained, grouped together in a single flock, and in the spring of that year, a group of well-organized hunters set out to fi  nd them. Find them they did, and they killed all but 5,000 of them. Only three years later, the last birds in the wild were shot. Once the most numerous bird on the whole planet, the passenger pigeon had been wiped out in a little more than 100 years.

Source: Wikipedia


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