Audubon painted the pigeons, observed the flocks and took notes.
The Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird. Not only in America, but perhaps in the whole world. In 1800 North America was filled with more than five billion Passenger Pigeons.
Passenger pigeons were hunted by Native Americans, who treated nature with enormous respect and only killed the birds to feed themselves. During the breeding seasons they left the adult birds alone.
However, hunting intensified after the arrival of Europeans and pigeon meat was cheap food, resulting in hunting on a massive scale for many decades.
The most famous and often reproduced depiction of the Passenger Pigeon is Audubon’s illustration (handcolored aquatint) in his book The Birds of America. Audubon published this book between 1827 and 1838.
Audubon’s image has been praised for its artistic qualities, but criticized for its supposed scientific inaccuracies.
The birds are shown perched and billing one above the other, whereas they would instead have done this side by side.
The male would be the one passing food to the female, and the male’s tail would not be spread.
The Passenger Pigeon is a beautiful bird with a slate blue back. The males have a red breast.
What set the bird apart from all the other species of pigeons in the world, is that they formed into really dense flocks.
Their population numbered up to the billions, and the flocks would be several hundred million to a billion birds in size. Notes tell us that the flocks would darken the sky for several days.
This bird was a super species for a very long time.
Audubon wrote in his diary
“In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before.”
“The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”
After European colonization, the Passenger Pigeon was hunted more intensively and with more sophisticated methods than the more sustainable methods used by the native Americans.
In 1878 huntering was allowed to continue throughout the breeding season and huge numbers were killed daily (up to 50,000 birds).
This rate of slaughter continued for nearly five months and around 7.5 million birds were killed. When the remaining adult birds attempted a second nesting, they were soon killed by the hunters and the birds had no chance to raise their young.
Audubon: “Here again, the tyrant of the creation, man, interferes, disturbing the harmony of this peaceful scene.
“As the young birds grow up, their enemies, armed with axes, reach the spot, to seize and destroy all they can. The trees are felled, and made to fall in such a way that the cutting of one causes the overthrow of another, or shakes the neighbouring trees so much, that the young Pigeons, or squabs, as they are named, are violently hurried to the ground. In this manner also, immense quantities are destroyed.”
Hunting was easy and fun when large numbers of birds flew over.
Hunting the pigeons was a popular sport for young boys. Thousands of birds were captured for use in the sports shooting industry and were used as living targets in shooting tournaments.
The last confirmed wild bird is thought to have been shot in 1901. When the last Passenger Pigeon (Martha) died in captivity in 1914 the Passenger Pigeons became extinct.