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Festival of Birds speaker looks at fate of the passenger pigeon; millions killed in a few decades

Joel Greenberg, gave an enthusiastic presentation as the featured Thursday night speaker at the Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds. Most of Thursday’s events took place at Maplelag Resort near Callaway. DL NEWSPAPERS/Vicki Gerdes

As recently as 1860, the passenger pigeon population in North America numbered in the billions: According to more than one eyewitness account, they often congregated in numbers sufficient to blot out the sun with their passage through the sky.

Yet by the dawn of the 20th century, the bird was essentially extinct, with but a few solitary examples of the breed still living in captivity — and the blame for the birds’ demise can be laid almost solely at the feet of mankind.

“They were the most abundant bird in North America, if not the world,” said author and natural historian Joel Greenberg, who was the featured presenter for the opening night of the 17th annual Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds on Thursday.

Yet even with a population estimated to have numbered well over a billion, “Human exploitation had wiped it out as a wild bird 40 years later,” Greenberg said.

The last known passenger pigeon, dubbed Martha, died in captivity on Sept. 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Greenberg, the author of “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” spun a fascinating tale that drew frequent gasps of astonishment and disbelief from his audience of just under 100 festival attendees.

The Chicago native, who is a lifelong birder and natural historian, had a similar reaction when he learned of this species’ ultimate fate — which is what drew him to examine their story as fodder for his latest book.

“I just thought it was an intriguing story,” he said later, when describing the reasons why he came to choose the passenger pigeon as a research subject.

Over the course of a 40-year span, passenger pigeons were so ruthlessly and aggressively hunted down with nets, guns, and any other weapons that came to hand that their seemingly invincible numbers were systematically wiped out.

“We drove the bird to extinction,” Greenberg said.

The birds’ propensity for nesting, roosting and traveling together in vast numbers rendered them uniquely vulnerable to the kind of exploitative hunting that would be deemed unconscionable in today’s society.

“They were hunted for food, mostly for home consumption,” Greenberg said — but they were so abundant that people would shoot down dozens, even hundreds of the birds at a time, and sell the surplus in stores.

Eventually, however, hunting pigeons became a competitive sport as well, with gentlemen gathering to shoot birds and place bets on the results.

But as Greenberg described it, “the backbone of the passenger pigeon killing industry was netting.”

Vast quantities of the birds were caught in nets by baiting them with grain, salt and angleworms — sometimes, even with other live birds.

“They used live pigeons as bait — these were called stool pigeons,” Greenberg said.

Some “pigeon hunters,” as they were known, did nothing but chase the birds down, year-round.

“These birds were being hunted relentlessly, unceasingly … the population was being eroded in all phases of the birds’ lives,” Greenberg said.

Even young, freshly-hatched birds, known as squabs were hunted and killed in vast numbers.

Many laws were passed to protect songbirds and other bird species over the years, Greenberg said; yet no such laws existed for passenger pigeons, until it was far too late.

“One state, and one state only, passed a law banning the shooting of passenger pigeons,” Greenberg said.

That state was Michigan, and the law was passed in 1897 — when there were none left to protect, he added.

As the end of the 19th century approached, “hunters clearly perceived that the birds were disappearing,” Greenberg said.

They were faced with two choices: To stop hunting the birds into the ground and allow the population to slowly build back up again, or “to kill off as many as they can, while they still can.”

Unfortunately, they chose the latter.

By the 1890s, there were only a couple thousand of the birds left, and the last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago.

After that last pigeon, Martha, died, her body was frozen in ice and shipped to the Smithsonian, where her remains are still stored; though rarely exhibited, Greenberg said, Martha will be on display at the Smithsonian this summer, to honor the 100th anniversary of the species’ official extinction.

Over the years, a few attempts have been made to bring back the passenger pigeon, by cloning from DNA samples left behind — with some of those efforts being more serious than others.

“There are serious efforts being made to clone the passenger pigeon,” Greenberg said.

But even if these efforts are eventually successful, he noted, “You’ll never bring back 100 million birds.”

And if they are successful, Greenberg added, he feels the birds will most likely need to spend their lives in captivity, due to their resemblance to mourning doves.

“More mourning doves are shot today than any other bird,” he said.

Greenberg believes that the passenger pigeon’s greatest legacy lies in the conservation lessons that sprang from its extinction.

“If something as abundant as the passenger pigeon can go away in just decades, things far rarer can disappear much faster than that,” Greenberg said.

In a question-and-answer session that followed his presentation Thursday, Greenberg was asked what individuals concerned about preserving rare and endangered species might do in order to make an impact.

“Join a (conservation) group, support politicians who consider conservation as important,” he said. “Or attend a birding festival,” quipped Festival of Birds organizer Kelly Blackledge, who later noted that this year’s festival had around 200 birders registered.

The Festival of Birds concludes today with a variety of field trips. For information on attending next year’s festival, please contact the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce at 218-847-9202.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454