“When an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone.”

– John James Audubon

I can’t remember when I first learned of the passenger pigeon’s existence. It wasn’t from friends or family. The old men at hunting camp didn’t tell tales of hunting them in days of yore. In fact, nobody that I knew even remembered them, and few others knew that they ever even existed. But this wasn’t too surprising. By the time I was born, the passenger pigeon had been extinct for 70 years. By that time (as they still do today) they existed only in the annals of history-in books, museum collections, taxidermy mounts, and paintings. In my youth I pored through books, literature, and artistic renderings of pigeons, and I was fascinated. I fantasized about witnessing massive flocks block out the sun as wild pigeons soared through the Pennsylvania sky. As a hunter, I dreamt of what it must have been like to pursue these animals, and wonder what kind of table fare they would have made. But I was also angry. I had been deprived by my ancestors of witnessing a spectacle that rivaled many others on earth. And it’s something I will never get to experience. A bird that once numbered in the billions now completely ceased to exist. How does that happen? How does a bird that was once so abundant disappear completely? And how does a species that was once so important and well-known disappear completely from the hearts and minds of those whose ancestors witnessed this spectacle? And maybe most importantly, how do we prevent something like this from happening again?

“Like a Feathered River Across the Sky”

The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is a now-extinct species of pigeon that once occurred in vast numbers throughout eastern North America, including the forests of the Chesapeake watershed. With populations that likely numbered in the billions, vast flocks moved throughout deciduous forests, searching for food and spring nesting sites. First-hand descriptions of these flocks are hard to believe. Pigeons were so numerous the flights were described to ‘block out the sun’ and could last for days to weeks at a time. Famous ‘ornithologists’ and artists John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson provided many first-hand accounts of these massive flocks and invaluable descriptions of pigeon characteristics and behavior. Transient flocks shifted around North America, moving between nesting and feeding sites. They formed gigantic nesting colonies that could stretch for hundreds of miles. Huge nestings were observed in the upper Midwest, Canada, and northcentral Pennsylvania that continued until the late 19th Century. While these nestings were substantial in size, each female pigeon laid only one egg, raising an individual ‘squab.’ Fledgling pigeons could fly within two weeks, allowing flocks to move on before resources were depleted. Passenger pigeons were strong, swift flyers, an adaptation for their nomadic lifestyle. But as abundant as passenger pigeon populations were, they could not sustain the onslaught of commercial market hunting that would help feed a growing 19th century American populous.

A digital rendering envisions what it must have been like to witness a migrating passenger pigeon flock. (Photo credit:

Pigeons and Deciduous Forests

To the untrained eye, our forests seem full of life-and in many cases they still are. But once you dig a little deeper, you begin to recognize the noticeable absence of the players that once shaped our forest communities. Chestnuts are gone. So too are elms. Ash and hemlock may soon join them. Fires are now less frequent, and many forests have been consumed by non-native plants. Large mammalian predators have also been removed. And the massive pigeon flocks no longer influence forest structure.

Passenger pigeons relied on oak forests and abundant mast crops, feeding primarily on acorns. To support their incredible numbers, vast quantities of acorns were consumed annually. Pigeon roosts and nesting colonies were so large that branches broke under the weight of thousands of birds perching on individual tree limbs. Their droppings blanketed the forest floor, influencing soil characteristics with the deposition of nutrients. It’s likely that this influenced forest dynamics and community composition by altering regeneration, canopy structure, succession, and soil conditions. It’s difficult to envision just how profound these effects must have been, and even more challenging to recognize that such a significant influence on our eastern forests is now completely absent.

A graphic illustrating how pigeon numbers and droppings could have influenced forest structure (Photo credit:

From Billions to Zero

Despite their abundance, pigeon populations could not survive the onslaught of destruction brought by such intense human persecution. As wildlife managers now understand, protection of females and nesting colonies during breeding seasons are imperative for populations to persist. By specifically targeting nesting colonies, hunters impacted all age classes at the most vulnerable point in their life cycle. The gregarious nesting habits of these birds created immense nesting colonies that were specifically targeted by market hunters. Pigeons were slaughtered by the thousands (and more) to be shipped via rail car to food markets in growing eastern American cities. Hunters used nets, live decoys, and shotguns to harvest nesting pigeons. Poles were used to knock pigeons from their roosts. Sulphur was boiled beneath the colonies to dislodge nesting birds. Farmers moved their hogs and livestock through the forests to feed on the bodies of dead pigeons. Although nesting sites shifted on an annual basis, the colonies were so big that word spread quickly, allowing harvests to continue without impediment.

An 1875 sketch of men shooting wild pigeons in the air.

Shooting Wild Pigeons in Northern Louisiana is based on a sketch by Smith Bennett and appeared in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of July 3, 1875 (Photo credit: Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News/Wikimedia Commons).

The reason for their abundance was due to evolutionary processes that encouraged collaboration and success in numbers. Large breeding colonies were a result of natural selection that favored this strategy. Vast numbers of pigeons meant that predators simply could not eat them all. And gregarious nesting behavior could have stimulated breeding. After a long evolutionary history of breeding this way, declining numbers led to smaller and smaller nesting colonies, eventually passing a threshold that was no longer large enough to form the gregarious nesting colonies needed for successful reproduction. By the late 1800s some states attempted to protect pigeons, but it was too little too late, as laws were rarely enforced.

The last passenger pigeon, nicknamed “Martha” died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. For a bird that once numbered in the billions, it was a sad and tragic ending. Deprived of a life surrounded by billions of her gregarious brethren, Martha lived alone for years, dying alone in her cage. If you want to see her (you really should go see her), she now resides at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. for all eternity.

So the next time you see a robin, or a red-winged blackbird, maybe take a closer look to appreciate their existence. Despite their commonness and abundance, the story of the passenger pigeon illustrates just how precarious the security of abundant wildlife populations can be when faced with human persecution.

A painting of two passenger pigeons.

A pair of passenger pigeons, painted famously by John James Audubon
(Photo credit:


There is a movement to ‘resurrect’ the passenger pigeon through genomic intervention. Various entities are working toward ‘de-extinction,’ in which gene editing techniques could be used to create an organism that looks and acts like a passenger pigeon by editing the genome of a close relative. While looking superficially similar to our familiar mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), the closest living relative of the passenger pigeon is actually the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata), which resides in the western United States and South America. Scientists plan to sequence the genetic codes of both species, then edit the genes of a band-tailed pigeon to eventually create offspring that look and act like passenger pigeons. If this comes to fruition, the ultimate goal would be to release ‘passenger pigeons’ into the wild to reclaim their historic niche in our eastern forests. But this plan is not without its detractors.

This begs the hypothetical (or maybe legitimate) questions: Would pigeons be tolerated in today’s landscape? And is there even room for them? There are more than 17 million people living in the Chesapeake watershed today. Our forests have been fragmented. Forest communities have changed in both structure and species. Would there be enough acorns to sustain billions of birds? Would deer and turkey hunters tolerate billions of birds eating all those acorns? Would farmers allow potential crop losses? How about pigeon dung raining down on homes and cars? And is it wise (or ethical) to even do so? I don’t know the answers. But someday, we just might find out.


“There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all the hardships and to all delights…The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?”

– Aldo Leopold

What I would give to see them just once. To stand under a nesting colony and listen to the rain of dung while branches break around me from the weight of nesting pigeons. To witness the spectacle of massive flocks that continued for days, obscuring the sun like a winged eclipse. I’ve watched the murmurations of starling flocks, ebbing and flowing across the sky. I’ve hunted snow geese and watched in awe as tens of thousands ‘tornado’ around me. But these experiences are bittersweet, as they are reminders of an even greater spectacle that has been lost forever. What I would give to hunt them, and to roast a pigeon breast next to venison steak and sweet corn. To harvest a species as my ancestors did on their Berks County farm more than 250 years ago is something I will never get to experience. Imagine the opportunities that a regulated, non-commercial hunting season could provide today. But alas, I know it can not be.

Passenger pigeons are still here, they are now just confined to glass cabinets and stuffy museum drawers. I know because I have seen them with my own eyes. The first one I ever saw was at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. While others might have visited the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, I was busy trying to find an extinct stuffed bird. I could have visited closer specimens, which I have many times since. Specimens are displayed not far away, at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and at Middlecreek Wildlife Management Area Visitor Center, both in southeastern Pennsylvania. But their colors have faded, their eyes are lifeless, and they no longer sweep through the sky like feathered rivers. They now sit silently, waiting for the next generation to discover them and dedicate their lives to conservation-the same way I did many years ago.

Stuffed specimens line a museum drawer.

Stuffed specimens line a museum drawer (Photo credit:

I sit on my deck in southeastern Pennsylvania on a cool spring evening. A hermit thrush is singing. A turkey gobbles. The deciduous forests are pushing leaves, springing back to life after a long winter. I know the pigeons should return soon. There are reports of flocks to the south, en route to their northern breeding grounds. They will soon sweep across the Pennsylvania sky, as they have done for millenia. For a brief moment I turn and look in hopes of seeing them come. But it’s in vain. The sky is empty.

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