Blane Klemek: Countless bison, passenger pigeons once roamed North America
Reminders of Minnesota’s past can still be uncovered within the bottomlands of the Red River of the North and other rivers and creeks and wetlands throughout the prairie grasslands throughout western Minnesota. Some of their bones are still there. Innumerable herds of buffalo once grazed, bellowed in the July heat, and moved in rhythm with the changing seasons of the Great Plains.
Tom McHugh, author of “The Time of the Buffalo,” estimated that the grasslands probably supported about 34 million bison. Some accounts suggest 60 million. Though impossible to determine the bison’s former population, it’s safe to say that the great herds of bison were “in numbers, numberless”, as quoted from early explorers’ historical notes.
Yet we all know what eventually became of the buffalo. Thankfully they still exist, though no free-ranging herds of wild bison graze anywhere in Minnesota today. That the shaggy wild bovid was plucked from the brink of near extinction was, in part, the result of luck. But bison weren’t the only boundless species of wildlife that once flourished in such vast, inconceivable numbers.
The passenger pigeon was a bird so plenteous that, according to the late ornithologist Charles Townsend in his contribution about the bird in Arthur Bent’s book, “Life Histories of North American Gallinaceous Birds”, wrote “. . . whenever laws were proposed for conserving the bird, the cry at once went up that it needed no protection, for its numbers and the extent of country over which it ranged were both so huge that protection seemed unnecessary.” By the end of the 19th century, passenger pigeons, for all intents and purposes, were extinct.
In grasping the finality of the word “extinct” as it relates to the passenger pigeon, one needs to first appreciate the implausible: how so many birds could have possibly existed, let alone to have been completely wiped out. To give an idea, in 1832 Kentucky, Alexander Wilson sat for four hours observing and counting migrating passenger pigeons. He calculated at least 2,230,272,000 individual birds. Wilson also estimated the massive flock to be more than one mile wide and 240 miles long!
This communal bird’s nesting behavior was equally as impressive. Wilson relates his observations of the extent of one such breeding place near Shelbyville, Ky., in the late 1820s. In a “beech woods” the nesting community extended in a north and south direction and was “several miles in breadth . . . and forty miles in extent.” He further added that nearly “. . . every tree was furnished with nests wherever the branches could accommodate them.” Townsend wrote that “More than 100 nests in one tree alone were not uncommon.” A game dealer in 1907 in Detroit reported seeing a nesting site in Wisconsin that stretched 100 miles through the forest.
John J. Audubon, 1840, described a roosting place in Kentucky as he rode his horse through the forest. The roosting site was some 40 miles long and about three miles wide. He reported that pigeon excrement on the forest floor was several inches deep. He continued by remarking, “Everything proved to me that the number of birds resorting to this part of the forest must be immense beyond conception.”
As was the way of the buffalo, unregulated market hunting was the primary reason for the passenger pigeon’s demise. The scale of this species’ persecution is beyond belief. Townsend quoted Professor H.B. Roney (1879) as estimating that about 5,000 men in the United States annually pursued passenger pigeons as a business.
The invention of the telegraph and improvements to the mail delivery system was thought to have kept professional “netters” informed of the whereabouts of pigeon roosting and nesting sites. Netting birds at baited sites was known to produce upwards of 2,500 to 5,000 birds per day per net. Tons upon countless tons of dead birds were shipped to such markets as Chicago where netters were paid 50 to 60 cents a dozen. Live birds brought up to $2 a dozen.
All it took to exterminate the billions of passenger pigeons from the North American continent throughout the heyday of commercial hunting was a mere 40-odd years; from the 1840s until the early 1880s. By the beginning of the 20th century they were gone. The last known surviving passenger pigeon was a single captive female in the Cincinnati Zoo. She died September 1914.
That millions of buffalo and billions of passenger pigeons once migrated across the continent is as astounding as their deliberate extermination. Nostalgia aside, one could ask the question: Would such unfathomable numbers even be possible today? The reality is, probably not. Society’s tolerance threshold is very low for many species of wildlife, especially for those capable of destruction to property. Imagine thousands of buffalo or millions of pigeons in a Kansas wheat field and you get the picture.
Even so, it had to have been spellbinding to witness the multitude of buffalo and passenger pigeons that once flourished. Regarding bison, their presence on the landscape has been described as a “continuous moving brown carpet as far as the eye could see.” As well, pigeons were noted to be so abundant that, as Audubon witnessed, “. . . the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse . . .”
And, as another observer described of their massive flights, “The noise was so great that even the next neighbors could not hear each other if they cried out with all the power of their lungs.” Indeed, something remarkable to consider as we walk amongst both forest and prairie as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)