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The Passenger Pigeon: Remembering A Lost Bird

September 3, 2014
thomas a bennett pigeons
Courtesy of Thomas A. Bennett

Mark Your Calendars: On Tuesday, September 9, the Friends of the Libraries invite you to   commemorate the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, and be a part of the Madison premier of David Mrazek’s brand new award-winning film, From Billions to None. Dr. Curt Meine, who has been part of Project Passenger Pigeon and is featured in the film, will be on hand to provide commentary before and after the screening. The screening will take place in Memorial Library from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. As part of Project Passenger Pigeon, a two-day event with a film screening, lectures, music, a staged reading of a play and more, is scheduled for November 1-2, 2014 on and around the UW-Madison campus.

This event is also co-sponsored by the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Department of Special Collections, and the UW Zoological Museum.


~ Written by Stanley A. Temple, Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation, UW-Madison, and Senior Fellow, Aldo Leopold Foundation

In 2014 we are commemorating the centennial of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. In the mid-19th century it was the most abundant bird in North America, numbering 3-5 billion, according to Wisconsin’s A. W. [Bill] Schorger, who in 1955 wrote what is still considered to be the definitive account of the species’ natural history and extinction. He described it as “the most impressive species of bird that man has ever known.” It’s hard to imagine today that the bird was once so abundant that flocks darkened the skies for days as they passed continuously overhead or that one bird in every four in North America was a Passenger Pigeon. It is also hard to comprehend that in just half a century of unregulated commercial exploitation we killed them off. The last wild bird was shot in 1902, and in 1914 the last surviving bird, a female named Martha, died in her cage at a Cincinnati zoo.

Stanley A. Temple ~ Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation University of Wisconsin-Madison and Senior Fellow Aldo Leopold Foundation (standing in front of Aldo Leopold’s shack) ~ Courtesy UW-Madison.

Wisconsin has played a recurring and significant role in the Passenger Pigeon story. The state was a principal nesting area for the bird, and in 1871 hosted the largest nesting colony ever recorded. It covered over 850 square miles of central Wisconsin with pigeons nesting in almost every tree. It was the scene of a well-documented, massive slaughter of the birds. Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, was almost certainly born in Wisconsin in 1887. In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology did something unprecedented at the time: it erected the first-ever public monument to a species, the Passenger Pigeon, which had become extinct because of human activities. The Passenger Pigeon Monument at Wyalusing State Park stands as a permanent reminder of what we lost. Aldo Leopold’s “On a Monument to the Pigeon” is considered by many to be one of the most poignant essays ever written about human-caused extinctions. He subsequently included it among the essays in his classic book, A Sand County Almanac, which has been read by millions. And Bill Schorger’s carefully researched monograph on the Passenger Pigeon will surely remain the standard reference on the species.

pigeon thomas
By Louis Agassiz Fuertes, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Passenger Pigeon wasn’t the first North American bird to be pushed over the brink by the excesses of 19th century overexploitation. The Great Auk and Labrador Duck, for example, preceded the pigeon, but neither of those losses elicited a strong public reaction. Perhaps because the pigeon had been so abundant and such a conspicuous feature of the eastern North American landscape, people who had known the bird in their lifetimes were shocked by its demise.

There can be no doubt that the pigeon’s extinction was one of the main catalysts for the emergence of the 20th century conservation movement. Many actions of the time specifically mentioned the pigeon’s loss as one of their motivations. Congress enacted the Lacy Act in 1900 to limit the ability of market hunters to ship their harvest to market. Rep. John Lacey of Iowa, on the floor of the House of Representatives, introducing what would become the first federal wildlife protection law, noted. “It is too late as to the wild pigeon. The buffalo is almost a thing of the past, but there still remain much to preserve, and we must act earnestly if we would accomplish good things.” In 1903 President Teddy Roosevelt signed an executive order that established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge as a bird refuge, the first time the federal government had protected land specifically for the sake of wildlife. The National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals (now the National Audubon Society) formed in 1905 to promote wild bird protection. A few years later in 1916 the Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada would specifically protect migratory birds, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) elevated that treaty to US law, making it unlawful to capture, kill or sell migratory birds.

Now, a century after the bird’s extinction, the tragic story of the Passenger Pigeon needs to be retold, not only because most people have forgotten it but also because it provides important lessons for the present and the future as we confront an unprecedented mass extinction of species as a result of our actions. To take advantage of this “teachable moment,” I have joined with other conservationists in creating Project Passenger Pigeon ( I have devoted much of 2014 to helping lead the effort and to cramming as much public outreach as I can into the centennial year.