My readers may recall a few weeks ago, when I wrote about trap shooting, that back in the 1800s passenger pigeons were used as targets for a while. I quoted an excerpt from the book “The Silent Sky” about John J. Audubon seeing a flock of more than 1 billion birds pass over him for three days near the Ohio River.
You have to realize that during the early 19th century, almost all of the land area east of the Mississippi River was solid, dense forest. So dense that in some places the sun could not shine through.
Imagine a flock of migrating passenger pigeons settling into the forest for the evening into an area one-half mile wide and more than 300 miles long. Every branch of every tree solid with birds. Word would immediately go out to every town and village along this route, and at first light the next morning thousands of men and boys would begin shooting into the flock.
One old man shot twice with his .10-gauge double-barrel gun using extra fine shot, and 187 birds hit the ground. In just a matter of minutes tens of thousands of birds would be killed or crippled. And this was just one flock. This was happening all over just to the west of the Mississippi and everywhere east.
If you take numbers like this beginning in the early part of the century and then multiply them for all the years to the end of the 1800s, you soon realize the numbers of pigeons was being reduced from billions, to hundreds of millions, to millions, to hundreds of thousands, and finally by the end of the century just a few thousand were scattered here and there.
But the biggest threat to their existence was not the local hunters who followed these migrations. It was the market hunters who were killing the birds during their nesting season. The baby birds, or squabs, were in great demand throughout the east and were considered a real delicacy by restaurants. A good netter with a crew could capture upwards of 20-50 barrels of birds per day, and at 300 birds per barrel it was a gold mine.
A single barrel of beheaded and gutted birds, iced down and shipped to Chicago, brought $25. And those taken alive for trapshooting could be sold right on the spot for 25 cents per dozen. A man could earn a year’s wages in just five weeks and take life easy the rest of the year.
The best example of the slaughter was on a single day in Newaygo County, Mich., when a crew killed a quarter of a million squabs and sent them to market.
On March 24, 1900, a lone passenger pigeon flew across the Ohio River from Kentucky and into Pike County, Ohio. While perched in a tree, he never noticed the small boy sitting behind a log 50 feet away holding a Christmas present from three months earlier ... a BB gun.
The bird landed in the field below the tree and began feeding toward the boy. Forty feet ... 25 feet ... 15. The boy’s finger pressed the trigger, and in that instant the last known passenger pigeon taken in the wild was killed.
The boy took the carcass to the wife of the county sheriff, Mrs. C. Barnes (no relation), who was a taxidermist. She mounted the bird and later donated it to Ohio State University at Columbus where it remains today.
At the time this bird was killed there were only three remaining pigeons in existence, all living in the Cincinnati zoo. Two of these died thereafter, and the last one, a female named Martha, passed away on Sept. 1, 1914.
The body was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. She was mounted and now perches behind glass in the U.S. National Museum, a perpetual reminder of the thoughtlessness and greed of mankind.