By Keri Murrell
The Passenger Pigeon gets its common name from the French word passage, meaning to ‘pass by’. This reflects the flock’s migratory behavioural patterns. These birds, prior to the 19th century, had a population of 3 to 5 billion individuals, equating to 25 to 40% of North America’s avifauna. When feeding, a rear group would rise and fly in front of others, creating a continual rolling motion with a deafening noise. One flock in 1833, identified by a French- American named Jon James Audubon, spread 1 mile wide and took 3 days to pass overhead, blackening out the sky!
The arrival of Europeans in the 1500’s initiated the bird’s population decline, due to the deforestation of the hardwood forests. Consequently, removing their mainstay food. Soon they became regarded as pests, as flocks moved onto cultivated crops. When seen, they were shot. By 1930, these birds were prominent in people’s diet as it was seemingly inexhaustible and cheap. The rise of the railroads and telegraphic communications enabled location of colonies and transport of young birds to market. In 1878, Crooked lake, Michigan, had one of the last large flocks, containing between 10 to 15 million pigeons. Here, during hunts, one shot could yield up to 61 birds. Some hunting competitions require at least 30,000 pigeons to be considered to claim the prize.
The last reliable wild record dates from 1902. Since 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo had more than 20 Passenger Pigeons to enable visitors to view the native species. In 1902, the zoo obtained a female named Martha from Charles Otis Whitman, placing her with two males. Yet, all attempts in breeding failed. By 1910, Martha was the last Passenger Pigeon, with the zoo offering $1,000 to anyone with a male. Nevertheless, on the 1st September 1914 at 1 p.m. Martha had died. Today, stuffed, she is kept at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington.
Recent advances in science permit the possibility of reviving extinct animals in a process called ‘de-extinction’. A company called ‘Revive & Restore’ in 2012 initiated a project called the ‘Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback’. By 2025, it aims to release a new generation of Passenger Pigeons. The project involves three phases;
1) Genome research: obtaining DNA from Passenger Pigeon specimens, along with Band-tailed Pigeon; Patagioenas fasciata.
2) Revival: adding Passenger Pigeon DNA successfully to Band-tailed pigeons and learning to raise pigeons to adulthood.
3) Restoration: finding an appropriate habitat for the Passenger pigeon, so the raised chicks can be released.