A roadside marker in Choctaw County, Mississippi, along the Natchez Trace commemorates Pigeon Roost, an extinct village that took its name from the Passenger Pigeons – now extinct for over a century -- that once migrated through the area by the millions.
And yes, they provided many a feast for our ancestors, not only in Mississippi but nationally. Their numbers were mind boggling.
But before more "hunting talk," here's some general scoop on these now extinct will birds.
Often confused with the message-transporting carrier pigeon, a breed of the common bird often seen perched on statues in public parks, the Passenger Pigeon looked more like its relative, the mourning dove, than it did the pigeons we see walking on city sidewalks. Its feeding habits were similar: acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts and similar mast when available, wild fruits (they often feasted on wild strawberries on the prairies of northeast Mississippi) in season, and agricultural grains – especially buckwheat.
Weighing in at about 13 ounces and measuring around 16 inches in length, the Passenger Pigeon was longer and plumper than its 12 inch, five ounce cousin. With its reddish-orange breast and blue-ish back, the pigeon also was a more colorful bird than the mourning dove – and just as delightful to the palate – a fact that figured in the bird’s demise.
Surely no one now living ever saw a flock of wild Passenger Pigeons. In the early days of this Republic, though, Passenger Pigeons – taking their name from the French word passager, meaning “passing,” a reference to the birds’ habit of moving quickly from one location to another – filled the skies in numbers that are scarcely imaginable today. Some ornithologists, in fact, believe the pigeons made up from a quarter to over a third of the total bird population of the United States.
In 1813 the naturalist John James Audubon, who spent much time in Mississippi and other states in the lower Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, determined to note every flock he observed with a pencil mark while on a ride through the Kentucky countryside. In 20 minutes he had made 163 marks. Soon, he wrote, “[t]he air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day 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.”
Pioneer ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) once undertook to estimate the number of pigeons he observed in a single migrating group. Noting that the flock took four hours to pass, and assuming the column of birds he saw “to have been one mile in breadth” – he believed it to have been much more – and knowing the birds flew 60 miles per hour, he calculated the length of the flock at “two hundred and forty miles.” Assuming, three pigeons per square yard – a conservative assumption – he numbered the flock at “230,272,000 pigeons! An almost inconceivable multitude, and yet probably far below the actual amount."
When such a flock found food, it descended and ate until the food was gone. Hunters shot and trapped them during the day, but the real slaughter began at night when the pigeons flew to roost. Audubon described such a scene. On the woodland floor, “The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting-place. Many trees two feet in diameter, I observed, were broken off at no great distance from the ground; and the branches of many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if the forest had been swept by a tornado.” [My own grandfather, born in in 1867, told my father of having seen flocks of pigeons of such numbers they broke the limbs from their roosting trees when he was growing up in Choctaw County, Mississippi.] The pigeons did not fly to roost until well after dark, but when they began to arrive, “the noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded [him]of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.”
As the birds flew over, they produced a “current of air of a surprising force.” Some hunters used blazing pine knot fires to blind the pigeons as they knocked them from the trees with long poles. Others fired away with shotguns. As many birds as possible were gathered, cleaned, and salted into barrels for shipping to city markets, where, in the 1870s, they fetched 50 to 60 cents a dozen. Many were left in the woods to be eaten by hogs. Professional pigeon hunters made anywhere from $10 to $40 per day – princely sums at a time when a skilled blacksmith was making less than $3 per day in most American towns.
Not surprisingly, the market hunting was widespread and relentless. From a single town in Michigan in 1869 were shipped three railcars per day of pigeons for 40 days – almost twelve million birds. Far-sighted conservationists knew the slaughter could not go on. A bill to protect the Passenger Pigeon was introduced in the Ohio legislature as early as 1857. It was rejected on the ground that “[t]he passenger pigeon needs no protection.
Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here to-day and elsewhere to-morrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.” The destruction, though, was more than ordinary, and by the last decades of the 1800s it was clear the pigeons were in serious decline.
Although sightings of flocks continued to be reported, by the turn of the century ornithologists generally believed the Passenger Pigeon was doomed for extinction. The last known wild specimen was killed in 1908. When a $1500 reward was offered for proof of a nesting wild pair, many sought to claim the reward, but the birds sighted always proved to be mourning doves, not passenger pigeons.
The last known living member of the species, a bird named Martha, died in a Cincinnati, Ohio, zoo in 1914. In December 2016 a website published a photo by a birder of what he believed to be a living Passenger Pigeon. There have been other reports from persons who believe they have seen the birds. Has the Passenger Pigeon flown back from oblivion? Almost certainly not. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it has.
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com.
Copyright 2017 James T. McCafferty