15 August 2006

The Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes Migratorius), Extinct

Passenger Pigeon

Physical Description

The physical appearance of the bird was commensurate with its flight characteristics of grace, speed, and maneuverability. The pigeon had a small head and neck, broad shoulders, long and pointed wings, and long tapering tail. The head and the rump had a slate blue, the lower throat and breast had a cinnamon red like the American Robin, and the feet and legs a clear lake red. The back of male was a purplish slate grey and the female's was a duller brownish grey. The male had about 16.5 inches (42 cm) in length and the female one inch (2.5 cm) shorter. For its close living relative, the mourning dove looks the same shape but is less brightly colored.

Illustration: The sketch of the male bird shown here is based on the drawings and photographs of several sources.

Scientifically, the passenger pigeon is known as Ectopistes Migratorius, but in history they were just simply called the wild pigeons. This species is now extinct. The last passenger pigeon died in at the Cincinnati in 1914. Nevertheless, these pigeons were once the most abundant species in North America. The passenger pigeons migrated every fall from the Hudson Bay and wintered in the forests of the Gulf of Mexico. The migration was described by an early visitor to Ontario travelling by boat from Niagara to Toronto in 1799. For duration of several hours, a continuous flock was flying in the opposite direction over the boat. When the visitor disembarked at Toronto, the darkened sky was still covered by the wild pigeons. Various records also documented the mass flight and said the beating of wings sounded like the roar of distant thunder.

Ink and Pencil Sketch

The awesome phenomenon was dated to the exploration of Jacques Cartier in 1534; Samuel de Champlain also mentioned the countless wild pigeons in 1605. According to the pioneer orthithologist Alexander Wilson, he estimated more than two billion birds in a migrating flock covering a mile (1.6 km) wide and extending some 240 miles (384 km) in 1810. John Audubon, the naturalist, gave a dramatic description of a flock in Kentucky and calculated a number of 1,115,136,000 birds. In 1878, one of the last concentrations was believed to contain 136 millions of the passenger pigeons spreading over one thousand square miles near Petoskey, Michigan.

The following is a narration of John Holme in 1848:

   'The pigeons in such numbers we see fly
    That like a cloud they do make dark the sky;
    And in such multitudes are sometimes found,
    As that they cover both the trees and ground:
    He that advances near with one good shot,
    May kill enough to fill both spit and pot.'

The native people did not have a written language and rarely made permanent records in North America. The Indian tribe of Mississauga (belonged to the Algonkian language people) went down from the north (probably northern Ontario) to trade with pioneers at now Toronto. The Mississaugas told the pioneers of a place called Mimico. In Ojibwa (language of First Nations), Mimico is written as Omimeca and means " The Resting Place/Home of The Wild Pigeon." The area of Mimico starts from the mouth of Mimico Creek at Lake Ontario and extends somewhat inland in southeast Toronto. The Missisaugas left us the name of Mimico were gone a long time ago. The area became the Town of Mimico, which was merged with Etobicoke to form the Borough of Et obicoke in 1967. The borough was reincorporated as a city in 1984 and later was amalgamated in the City of Toronto in 1997.

The Indians and the pioneers had taken the bounties of the nature; however, the disappearance of the wild pigeons seems to be mainly caused by the settlers to clear land for farms. For the rapid expansion of farmland, the wild pigeons were viewed upon as pests. Such migration flocks would demand a huge support of the ground. These birds had a voracious appetite. Their natural diet consisted of maple and elm seeds in the spring, berries and roots with worms and insects as supplements in the summer, and oak and beech nuts in autumn. Naturally, the farmers encouraged the commercialization of killing the birds for food export and sporting. By 1840, the professional pigeoners became a big business and they used net and lead shots to harvest millions of birds. Furthermore, the birds were losing their habitat due to the devastation of pristine forests.

Over years, the outstanding decline was noted in the number of the wild pigeons in the late 19th century. It was by then illegal to net the pigeons within two miles of nesting area, though the enforcement was weak. Afterwards, the lawmakers attempted to preserve this resource by enacting legal protections for the hapless birds. In 1897 a bill was introduced both in Michigan and Ontario for a ten-year closed season on passenger pigeons. The last nesting of a colony of about twenty birds was reported in Ontario in 1898. The last capture of the bird was recorded in Ohio in 1900. The last wild pigeons was shot by a boy in 1902 and one single passenger pigeon was sighted last in Ontario in 1902. From 1909 to 1912, the American Ornithologists' Union offered a handsome $1,500 reward for anyone finding a nest or nesting colony of passenger pigeons. Unfortunately, the help for the birds was too late. The only living passenger pigeon that was kept in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden died at 29 years old in 1914. So, the species disappeared completely on the earth and only stuffed specimens are left, leaving the humankind poorer of native wildlife.

The last passenger pigeon

The last passenger pigeon was called Martha, named after Martha Washington. After she died at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden, it was donated to the Smithsonian Institution. The specimen "Martha" is now in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit had withdrawn from regular displays.

Her display case has a label:
Last of her species, died at 1 p.m.,
1 September 1914, age 29, in the
Cincinnati Zoological Garden.


  1. Currell, Harvey, "The Mimico Story," 2nd edition, published by Town of Mimico and Library Branch, printed by Chromo Lithographing Company Limited, 1967.
  2. MacCrimmon, Hugh R., "Animals, Man and Change, Alien and Extinct Wildlife of Ontario," McCelland and Stewart Limited, 1977.
  3. "The Passenger Pigeon," internet article prepared by the Department of Vertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History in cooperation with the Public Inquiry Mail Service, Smithsonian Institution Smithsonian Information [2006].
  4. "Passenger Pigeon" page, Wikipedia.com - The Free Encyclopedia [2006].


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