100 years later, have we learned from the passenger pigeon’s extinction?

It’s been 100 years since the last passenger pigeon disappeared from the skies.

Monday was a sad anniversary in the history of American wildlife conservation, marking the centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction.

We don’t usually know the date of a species’ passing with such precision, but in this case it’s well established as Sept. 1, 1914, because the last living pigeon was an inmate of the Cincinnati Zoo at the time of her demise.

She was called Martha, after the nation’s first First Lady, and may have reached the advanced age of 29, according to a fine piece in a recent Audubon magazine, despite “a palsy that made her tremble. Not once in her life had she laid a fertile egg.”

Because I grew up in the latter 1900s, I long assumed that the passenger pigeon had been erased on purpose as an agricultural pest, like the gray wolf, or as collateral damage in other pest control, like the DDT-beset bald eagle.

But that was conflating a newer kind of tragic narrative with an older one: industrial-scale “market hunting” that slaughtered wild creatures like the American bison, and any number of waterfowl, on a recklessly massive scale. The bison survived, just barely; the passenger pigeon did not.

And though the eagle edged out the turkey as Americans’ national bird, I find it pleasant to think about the honor having gone instead to this cousin of the smaller, duller mourning dove and the painted-looking pigeons that city dwellers deride as rats with wings.

Here’s a description from the Smithsonian Institution (which, by the way, has a taxidermist’s mount of Martha in its vault but does not display her):

The physical appearance of the bird was commensurate with its flight characteristics of grace, speed, and maneuverability. The head and neck were small; the tail long and wedge-shaped, and the wings, long and pointed, were powered by large breast muscles that gave the capability for prolonged flight. The average length of the male was about 16½ inches. The female was about an inch shorter.

The head and upper parts of the male pigeon were a clear bluish gray with black streaks on the scapulars and wing coverts. Patches of pinkish iridescence at the sides of the throat changed in color to a shining metallic bronze, green, and purple at the back of the neck. The lower throat and breast were a soft rose, gradually shading to white on the lower abdomen. The irides were bright red; the bill small, black and slender; the feet and legs a clear lake red.

The colors of the female were duller and paler. Her head and back were a brownish gray, the iridescent patches of the throat and back of the neck were less bright, and the breast was a pale cinnamon-rose color.

A population in the billions

Throughout the summer, from the Great Lakes region east to New York, the pigeon was a common sight and a significant game bird, as it had been before European settlement.

They might pass overhead in masses a mile wide and hundreds of miles long. Their number has been estimated at 3 billion to 5 billion birds, which at the high end would have represented 40 percent of all wild birds then living in the U.S.

In an “ornithological biography” of the bird, John James Audbon wrote of this encounter with migrants:

In the autumn of 1813 I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh I observed the Pigeons flying from northeast to southwest in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence and began to work with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed.

In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose and, counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose. …

Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed. For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of Pigeons, and talked of nothing but Pigeons.

This wasn’t exactly subsistence hunting as practiced by Indians and early settlers, but it appears not to have had much impact on the pigeons’ overall numbers, either.

Nor did “market hunting” — the shooting and netting of Midwestern birds for sale in eastern cities — as practiced in the early 1800s. The population was simply too large and well-established.

Market hunting goes industrial

After mid-century, though, as the expansion of railroads made possible much larger shipments of pigeons, and promoted the logging booms that drastically shrank their habitat, the pigeons were in trouble.

Roosting in massive numbers enabled equally massive slaughters; it has been reported that hunters near Petoskey, Michigan, killed 50,000 birds a day for nearly five months at a single nesting site.

During migration, low-flying birds could be knocked out of the air with poles; nesting birds could be decimated with smoke or poisoned grain; poults, which weighed more than their parents, could be gathered from the ground in the short space between leaving the nest and learning to fly.

As late as 1871, according to Audubon magazine, there were an estimated 136 million breeding adults in an 850-square-mile portion of Wisconsin’s oak barrens, but the population was already in a rapid plunge toward extinction.

Warnings were raised and some states attempted to protect the passenger pigeon with hunting restrictions, but the laws were unpopular and difficult to enforce. At the national level, Congress voted in 1900 for a set of protections offered by Iowa’s Rep. John F. Lacey, which restricted interstate commerce in wild game and opened an era of federal protections for birds and other wildlife.

The Lacey Act was too late for the pigeon, though. Although some recent research quibbles with this date, it has long been generally agreed that the last passenger pigeon to be seen and officially identified in the wild was shot in Pike County, Ohio, in March of 1900 by a 14-year-old boy, said to have employed a BB rifle (or, more plausibly, the family shotgun) to eliminate a bird he felt had been pilfering bits of corn.

The boy who killed ‘Buttons’

The boy, Press Clay Southworth, lived into his 90s and became a subscriber to AARP’s Modern Maturity, where he read of the killing and wrote to the editor, confessing his role. (I found this account in a Google Books snippet from “A Feathered River Across the Sky,” by Joel Greenberg.)

Southworth didn’t know what kind of bird he’d blasted, he said, until his parents identified the corpse, which they then had mounted. The stuffed bird became known as Buttons after an improvisation by the taxidermist, who had run out of glass eyes.

It is tempting to see the Lacey Act and therefore the passenger pigeon’s demise as watershed moments, after which Americans’ relationship with species and their conservation was forever changed.

And it can be comforting to consider all of the protective legislation that has followed Rep. Lacey’s landmark law (which nowadays is more likely to be raised as a barrier to the unintended spread of noxious, invasive species than as a tool for controlling trade in iconic, indigenous ones).

But of course we have many contrary examples to consider as well, and at the moment my favorite is the steadfastly selfish, remarkably disingenuous refusal of the Minnesota Vikings to fit their new temple of pro football with bird-saving etched glass.

No one can say with much certainty how many birds will be knocked from the air by the new stadium’s unpatterned windows, but the impact of adding 200,000 square feet of windowpane in the middle of North America’s largest migratory flyway can’t be considered trivial, and the team’s position cannot be considered community-minded.

It is a settled matter of Minnesota and Minneapolis public policy that new construction is to take reasonable steps to mitigate destruction of migratory birds. This is so even if the project doesn’t receive the massive public subsidies going toward this one.

Shifting rationales for inaction

Yet the Vikings simply refuse to do the right thing and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which supposedly oversees the project, supports the team’s truculence even as the stated justifications for doing the wrong thing keep changing.

First the excuse was that there wasn’t room in the project’s billion-dollar budget for the extra $1 million that bird-safe glass would cost; now, having added $46 million for such upgrades as more TVs by the concession stands, we’re told that etched or “fritted” glass has always been a nonstarter because the owners prefer the aesthetics of plain glass, and anyway the windows have already been ordered, and the construction schedule can’t accommodate a change, and so on.

I don’t mean to equate the stadium’s contribution to migratory bird mortality with the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

What I do say is that the behavior of the Vikings and the MSFA reminds me a little bit of a kid with a 12-gauge shotgun, going out to blast a pigeon just because he feels like it.

It’s not a perfect analogy, as kids will do dumb, destructive, shortsighted things just because they’re kids; young Clay Southworth couldn’t grasp the import of his act until after he’d pulled the trigger. But the Vikings and their overseers know better, or ought to, and history ought not be forgiving toward their flippancy.

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Comments (44)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/02/2014 - 10:28 am.


    Reading about the destruction of the passenger pigeon makes me sick. It’s not the only species clearly destroyed by man, but the sheer scale is disgusting.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/02/2014 - 11:32 am.


    …is not a phrase I associate with professional sports in general, and football in particular. Like other for-profit sport-based corporations, the mythical “giving-back to the community” exists only insofar as it has no significant effect on the corporate bottom line. More big TV screens will help draw paying customers. Only migrating birds will see a positive effect of using patterned glass, and birds, after all, don’t really count for much in a corporate account book.

    Maybe if an investigative reporter finds (and documents) 1,000 or so dead birds every week around the stadium perimeter during the migratory season (and the Vikings, of course, could insist that their “property rights” allow them to prohibit photography or other evidence-gathering on stadium premises) there might be some after-the-fact and insufficient action, but lacking that kind of in-your-face evidence, and as we’ve seen all along, the primary value expressed by the Minnesota Vikings through their actions has been greed, not the community, and certainly not the creatures most likely to be injured by the new football palace.

  3. Submitted by John Edwards on 09/02/2014 - 11:42 am.

    Easy answer

    Why doesn’t the Audubon Society itself simply raise the amount it would take to solve the problem. It would amount to $1.65 for each of its 600,000 members. What a PR bonanza: advocates who actually put their money where their mouths are and do not demand that others pay for what they want.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 09/02/2014 - 12:04 pm.

      Or perhaps…

      we could learn that all life on this planet is interconnected.

      Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    • Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/02/2014 - 05:30 pm.

      Easy out

      What an easy out, putting a shared responsibility that is on all of us, Vikings billionaire owners included, on other people.

      Your post indicates that you do not understand the issue, are unconcerned about living on this planet without doing unnecessary damage to the biosphere, and are in fact part of the problem.

    • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 09/04/2014 - 10:23 am.

      Oligarchs are happy to have people like you on their side

      We’re dealing with characters like this:

      “The owners of the Minnesota Vikings were ordered to pay nearly $85 million in damages to former business partners they defrauded with “evil motive”, and will face a criminal investigation into their actions, which a judge declared violated racketeering laws.”

      This fellow is then knowingly creating a system to destroy natural value (migrating birds), and the value to the public that cherishes these birds, and your suggestion is that the public pay for this guy’s destruction when he could easily not do it in the first place? You’re suggesting we subsidize his irresponsibility? Is it the case you have no problem with someone engaged in “organized crime-type activities,” according to a judge who examined the case of fraud the Vikings owner was involved in, and it is the responsibility of the public to clean up after his mess? I take it you also don’t disagree with the ethos of maximizing profit with little concern for anything else–other people, the environment, etc? Perhaps you have some problem with trying to address problems before they manifest?

  4. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/02/2014 - 12:01 pm.

    Answer to the question


  5. Submitted by Brian Parkhurst on 09/02/2014 - 12:16 pm.

    Curing Ignorance

    As a life-long learner and educator, I have believed and practiced learning as a “cure” for ignorance. That process has met with uneven success during my 54 years of applying it. Which seems to be borne out in your example of the Vikings football team ($46 million for TV’s for food buyers, but not even $1 million to protect the migratory birds)!

    When you find the cure for ignorance, please share it with all of us willing to learn – there may be hope for even our species to survive our limited ability to learn from the past.

    [You can quit searching for a cure for “stupid” – many of our politicians, pop musicians, athletes and other “idols” have elevated stupid to an art form. With so many example from our inner-city and rural “disenfranchised”, it seems to remain for only the middle class to learn “stupid” as a life style for our nation to decay into non-existence.]

  6. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/02/2014 - 12:37 pm.


    What happened to the passenger pigeon is still going on today in other parts of the world. A few months ago National Geographic had an article on song bird hunting in southern Europe and northern Africa. There are so many hunters deployed along the bird’s migratory path that very few are making it through to breeding grounds. Numbers are crashing hard along with so many other species across the planet.

    I guess the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.

  7. Submitted by Leonard Foonimin on 09/02/2014 - 04:32 pm.

    Easy Answer

    “Why doesn’t the Audubon Society itself simply raise the amount it would take to solve the problem. It would amount to $1.65 for each of its 600,000 members. What a PR bonanza: advocates who actually put their money where their mouths are and do not demand that others pay for what they want.”

    Hold on I have an idea;
    Why didn’t the MN Vikings and the NFL fans themselves simply raise the amount it would have taken to build the new stadium?

    What a PR bonanza: advocates of NFL football who actually put their own money where their mouths are and do not demand that others, e,g, taxpayers, pay for what they want.

    What a concept!

  8. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/02/2014 - 05:48 pm.

    Billionaires and bureaucrats…

    …getting either to alter course just because it is the right thing to do is almost impossible. It does require one to have a soul, after all, or at least a conscience.

    There is plenty of blame to go around for the use of bird-killing glass in the Vikings’ Avian Abattoir, primarily on the Vikings and the MSFA of course, but let’s not forget the Champion in Chief of the new stadium, Gov. Dayton. He has heard from concerned voters and has received a petition, but has done nothing to advocate for a fix, not even a mention in passing, so the dead birds are on him too.

    Democrats in general, from the state level to Obama, have been largely abysmal with respect to environmental issues for the past 15 years or so, so while the lack of concern in the Dayton administration is disappointing, it is unsurprising. Environmentalists have no major party to represent their interests.

    • Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 09/02/2014 - 07:25 pm.


      What’s really sad is that Dayton could step in and demand the window fix. After all, he was the one instigating all the state subsidies.
      Makes it hard for environmentalists to vote at all.

      • Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/03/2014 - 09:02 pm.

        i will write in …

        My vote for Governor. I suggest Dayton pay attention. He has not voted favorably on lots of big issues.

  9. Submitted by jason myron on 09/03/2014 - 11:33 am.

    Of course it was an “easy answer”

    as there wasn’t one iota of thought put into it. Audubon is a non-profit that puts 77 cents of every dollar into their programs with affiliated 500 local chapters of volunteers. These people are already putting their money where their mouths are which is more than I can say for Mr. Edwards.

  10. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 09/04/2014 - 12:25 pm.

    Contact Vikings Stadium Authority

    Their number is 612-332-0386.

    Or you can check out their website and leave an email comment.

  11. Submitted by John Appelen on 09/06/2014 - 08:18 am.

    Please Explain

    Please help me understand this fear that migratory birds are stupid, fly low and likely to hit this building that is located in the heart of a major city.

    My simple rationale is MN and Wisc are pretty wide East to West (100s of miles) and the stadium though large is very insignificant in relative size or height.(100,s of feet) Beside the fact that more buildings are being built around it as we speak that the birds will need to avoid. And their is lot of space over the rivers to the East.

    Now I do agree some city birds will smuck the glass, just as they do my picture window occasionally. (ie Darwinism at work) But I sure can not understand this irrational fear the stadium is going to make some birds endangered.

    Are you sure this isn’t just a convenient topic to use to complain about the Vikings and the stadium? I agree that they should stay with clear glass, this stadium is in essence a piece of MN art and the polka dot effect sure would mar the appearance.

    And here I am not even pro-stadium… But it is coming whether we want it or not. Now let’s make it something we will be happy to see on national and international TV broadcasts.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 09/08/2014 - 10:59 am.

      Please learn to use Google

      Instead of asking questions to which the answers have already been written about, at length, even at this very news site, you could simply do a tiny bit of really basic research. The stadium is near the river, which is a transit route for migratory boards. If you build a giant glass wall near where birds go, some will hit it.

      It’s not even that the birds are stupid, it’s that they can’t even see the glass in the first place… their eyeballs evolved over millions of years in a world that has only had glass for about 3500 years, and only about 2000 of those years were they used for windows, and even then those structures were primarily low to the ground. This is more ‘socially Darwinian’ than ‘Darwinian Darwinian.”

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/08/2014 - 02:59 pm.


        My links to aerial photos didn’t make it. Take a look at some for Minneapolis and you will see why I question the “fly way” theory. There are a lot of tall buildings to the N/NW and the metrodome isn’t that close to the river.

        So unless the ducks are visiting the warehouse district, I don’t see it.

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 09/08/2014 - 03:45 pm.

          Most buildings you cannot see through from one side to the other, which is part of the problem. When the IDS center was first built, with no other buildings around it, it reflected sky, and a lot of birds died flying into it, too.

          Either way, a big part of the issue is how tone-def the vikes are on this. They just announced they would spend millions more to cover this and that and the other thing (like TVs in the bathrooms or something), but not the relatively paltry 1 mill it would take to mitigate this bird issue.

  12. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 09/07/2014 - 09:06 am.

    Bird extinction

    The issue with the stadium is bird death not extinction. The campaign to change the glass must have greater visability and be raised with the Governor and all possible buyers of the naming rights. As the same company makes the glass, changing the order should not be that much of an issue. I understand that many significant buildings in other parts of the country use this glass. The Vikings could pay or do a special campaign to raise the $. Special state environmental funds (like Legacy) could also be tapped.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/07/2014 - 05:42 pm.

      Just curious

      Are you also against the hunting of game birds?

      Would it be okay if the Vikings gave the birds to a local food pantry?

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/07/2014 - 10:18 pm.

        You’re kidding!

        Heck – let’s also scrape up road kill for the less fortunate. Same school of thought . . . . .

        • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 09/08/2014 - 11:07 am.

          No, he’s serious…

          I mean, I guess it’s OK to feed the animals WITH animals… LOL

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/08/2014 - 11:29 am.

          Yes I was Kidding

          Though I was once hunting deer when a pheasant flew up and broke his neck on a telephone post’s guide wire. Fortunately one of my friends had their pheasant license so the bird did not go to waste.

          By the way, many deer that are killed cleanly are butchered and given to food shelves. Through this program and from conservation officers bringing them in.

          Sorry to say, I do seriously think folks are making a mountain out of this mole hill. (ie migration path is the mountain, stadium is the mole hill)

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/08/2014 - 11:36 am.

          Checkout Page 143 for how many birds were harvested in 2007.


          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/08/2014 - 10:47 pm.

            Migratory songbirds Appelen

            For the record, its probably a small blip sure, but considering the millions of birds we kill yearly through habitat loss, development, and even due to our pet cats, it might be a nice gesture for an industry, which is having a very bad week, to at the very least get some positive PR. You might want to rethink your line regarding hunting, given the thrust of the article, not to mention the sorry state of waterfowl populations here and elsewhere. The responsible hunting community has it bad enough with the co-opting of it resources by the gun nut crowd, you might want to leave the birding community and then larger environmental community alone. When it comes to habitat preservation, you know that which will actually preserve things like hunting and fishing for future generations, we’ll need their help someday.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/09/2014 - 10:28 am.


              I think we have more than enough help considering the amount of land that is being taken out of agricultural production lately in MN. Thankfully it usually isn’t the best producing land. I looked for a graph but could not find one.

              Besides the environmental folks will always be there if it means returning land to “nature” and stopping the production food on it. Look at some of the wet lands laws and their application.

              • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 09/09/2014 - 10:58 am.

                I’d rather have acres ‘out of service’…

                than have them be the sterile desert that most farmland is.

                Modern farming kills the soil, making it into nothing but a growing medium which needs to be doused with fertilizer to allow the plants to grow well. The monoculture of industrial crops (corn and soybeans) is basically sterile and requires pesticides (more chemicals) to keep it that way. Humans do not directly eat what is grown on most farmland. The crops are sent to factories, where it is torn apart to create ‘food’ additives, or to feedlots, where it creates sick animals (beef and dairy cattle are grass eaters, not grain eaters) which need to be dosed with anti-biotics (more chemicals) to stay healthy. If not treated properly, you have a herd that is infected with e. coli bacteria that can impact millions of people. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact on bee populations, something which could decimate our food supply.

                Now, imagine if all of that farmland was used to grow real food. If California’s Central Valley can supply as much food as it does, imagine what the great farmland of the Midwest and Great Plains could produce. We’ve squandered the wealth of the prairie; eons of soil creation raped and sterilized for a century of over-consumption.

                We’re beginning to reap the consequences of the devastation of one of the world’s great ecosystems. I hope we can figure it out before it’s too late.

              • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/09/2014 - 03:31 pm.

                Go tell that to the Dakotas

                Hunting is big business too, you realize. Perhaps farmer’s (or their children) forgot to read the section on the dust bowl in their history books. I’ll you what, lets just drain tile all of it, while we’re at it lets just go ahead and turn all the rivers and lakes into irrigation canals and drainage ponds. After all making farmers money is all the land is good for anyway, right? Btw, most non industrial farmers I know would be aghast at your attitude, but then I assume you’re the product of part time cash croppers from the sw right?

                • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/09/2014 - 05:38 pm.

                  Part Time Cash Croppers

                  I don’t understand the term.

                  Actually, raising grain that fulfills 1000’s of uses in our country and around the world seems pretty important to me.

                  My family and friends are pretty much all no till, strip till or minimum till. They use tiling because it allows drainage while eliminating erosion. They build terraces and water flow breaks to stop erosion. They use round up ready crops to reduce the amount of cultivation required and to use less fuel. Good farmers know it is important to keep the top soil right where it is.

                  My Pheasants Forever friends dislike my attitude also. They like it when more land is no longer producing grain, it gives them more land to hunt.

                  • Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/09/2014 - 08:58 pm.


                    That its not only pheasants using that land. I’m happy for relations and all that grain, though to brag about your rr crops rings a bit hollow. I remember the roundup ready cotton fields from Mississippi when I did bird surveys there, kinda tough to keep topsoil when every ditch is barren soil. But then you folks don’t bother with ditches, especially when the prices are good. Btw the part time comment was a dig at crop farmers from a descendant of multiple generations of dairy farmers. They don’t get vacations in the winter.

                    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/09/2014 - 10:01 pm.

                      SW MN

                      I think you should spend some more time in SW MN. Lots of county ditches filled with grass. Lots of ungrazed pastures. Lots of CRP and wetlands.

                      The biggest threat to our birds are coyotes, fox, raccoons, possum, harsh winter, etc.

                    • Submitted by jason myron on 09/10/2014 - 01:48 pm.

                      Wrong as usual.

                      Habitat loss and degradation due to human development and agriculture are by far the biggest threats. Predators don’t even make the top three. By the way, none of the animals you mentioned are known for their prowess at catching birds. Thanks for the chuckle however.

                    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/10/2014 - 06:25 pm.


                      They like egges my precious…

                    • Submitted by jason myron on 09/12/2014 - 12:50 pm.


                      Your contention is that egg eating is the primary threat to migratory birds? Do you know how few of those species actually lay eggs on the ground? About the same number of coyotes, possums & fox that climb trees. Keep ’em coming, you’re on a roll…precious.

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