Eugene Buchanan of Bryant has a bone to pick with The Observer’s recent musings blaming “men with guns” for the passenger pigeon’s demise. “Let me try to re-educate The Observer on a few points,” he asked.
We’re not sure whether or not we are educable, but we acknowledge Mr. Buchanan’s two points: That the passenger pigeons required large forests in which to live, and we all know what happened to our forests in the 19th and 20th centuries; and that in Arkansas, men with guns saved the Cache River woods, where it’s thought the ivory-billed woodpecker is trying to avoid the pigeon’s fate.
Indeed, if Stuttgart dentist and hunter Rex Hancock hadn’t gotten fired up, the beautiful tupelo-cypress bottomlands where our woodpecker is thought to be hiding would have been turned by the Corps of Engineers into a straight, treeless ditch. Add Johnny B. Moore of Clarendon, too, to the list of men who, even though they liked to kill a duck, halted the destruction of the woods. Mr. Buchanan is right.
But we must add that the birds’ fate was sealed before the virgin forests of the Eastern United States met their own extinction.
So for Mr. Buchanan, and all those other people who were irked by the “men with guns” reference, The Observer quotes the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History on the subject:
“The notable decrease of passenger pigeons started when professional hunters began netting and shooting the birds to sell in the city markets. Although the birds always had been used as food to some extent, even by the Indians, the real slaughter began in the 1800s.
… Because the birds were communal in habit, they were easily netted by using baited traps and decoys. The birds were shot at the nesting sites, young squabs were knocked out of nests with long sticks, and pots of burning sulphur were placed under the roosting trees so the fumes would daze the birds and they would fall to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed for private consumption and for sale on the market, where they often sold for as little as fifty cents a dozen. By 1850 the destruction of the pigeons was in full force. ... One of the last large nestings of passenger pigeons occurred at Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878. Here 50,000 birds per day were killed and this rate continued for nearly five months. When the adult birds that survived this massacre attempted second nestings at new sites, they were soon located by the professional hunters and killed before they had a chance to raise any young … By the early 1890s the passenger pigeon had almost completely disappeared. … The passenger pigeon’s technique of survival had been based on mass tactics. There had been safety in its large flocks which often numbered hundreds of thousands of birds … This colonial way of life became very dangerous when man became a predator on the flocks. … The interests of civilization, with its forest clearing and farming, were diametrically opposed to the interests of the birds which needed the huge forests to survive. … The converting of forests to farmland would have eventually doomed the passenger pigeon.”
And from Wikipedia: “It is estimated that there were as many as five billion passenger pigeons in the United States. … It was literally eaten into extinction by humans. … The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. She was frozen into a block of ice to be sent to the Smithsonian Institution to be skinned and mounted. She may be seen there today.”
In case you’re not feeling sad enough, here are some verses from late folk crooner John Herald’s “Martha (Last of the Passenger Pigeons)”:
Oh the birds went down
they fell and they faded to the dozens
Til in a Cincinnati Zoo was the last one
Yes all that remained was the last
with a name of Martha
Very proud, very sad, but very wise
Oh as the lines filed by there were few who cared
or could be bothered
how could anyone have treated you harder
and it was all for a dollar or more
Oh on and on til dreams come true
you know a piece of us all goes with you
Oh and surrounded there by some of whom wept around her
in a corner of the cage they found her
she went as soft as she came so shy til the last song
oh the passenger pigeon was gone …