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Friday, 30 December 2016

Passenger pigeon

The passenger pigeon is an extinct long-tailed pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) from North America.

It was the most abundant bird of historical times in the US. John James Audubon reported seeing more than 1 billion passenger pigeons in Kentucky in 1813. The population conceivably exceeded 10 billion, possibly accounting for up to 40 percent of the total population of North American birds.

Live female in 1896/98, kept in the aviary of C. O. Whitman

Migrating in enormous flocks, the passenger pigeon could reach flying speeds of 100 km/h (62 mph). Passing flocks obscured the sky, literally blocking out the sun. The flocks took hours or days to pass a given point. Some accepted estimates of the number of birds in a single flock alone exceeded 2 billion.

The male pigeons were 39 to 41 cm (15.4 to 16.1 in) in length and mainly gray on the upperparts, with iridescent bronze feathers on the neck and black spots on the wings; the females were duller and browner. They looked very similar to mourning doves, a close relative that is still common.

Stuffed male passenger pigeon, Field Museum of Natural History. By James St. John

They inhabited mainly deciduous forests in eastern North America, primarily around the Great Lakes. The Passenger Pigeon fed especially upon the nuts of the beech tree and the acorns of the white-oak tree. The groves of these great trees were its nesting places.

In the 19th century, when widespread deforestation was destroying their habitat, they were commercialized as cheap food and hunted voraciously. Passenger pigeons became such an ordinary dish that many people objected to eating them.

Depiction of a shooting in northern Louisiana, Smith Bennett, 1875

The endless slaughter, combined with the cutting down of the oak forests, was disastrous. The Passenger Pigeon was hunted to extinction in the wild by 1894 and the last specimen, Martha, died in Cincinnati Zoo on September 1 1914, at 1 PM.

The Passenger Pigeon's total elimination within about 150 years is almost beyond comprehension. Eradication of the species has been described as one of the most senseless extinctions induced by humans.

Sources 10,001 Titillating Tidbits of Avian Trivia by Frank S. Todd, Europress Family Encyclopedia, Comptons Encyclopedia

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