Passenger pigeon

The only passenger pigeons around nowadays are in the form of a few mounted specimen in museum displays.

September bringing the first of annual mourning dove seasons, there is quite a stir precipitated by these prolific, much-pursued migratory game birds.

Hunters often marvel at the resilience of doves, seemingly an endless well of new birds overflowing from reproduction. Despite the generous harvests by legions of hunters, the doves prosper. Each late summer, there they are again in swarms.

Many from opposing camps imagine that hunting is a threat to the vulnerable doves’ very existence. They assume extensive hunting puts mourning doves on the brink.

Both sides are probably right and wrong.

Mourning doves are not a sure thing. There is a lot of scrutiny and management behind the scenes that assures sport hunting is not an unsustainable drain on the dove population. Without this safeguard, a species is not invulnerable.

Meanwhile, neither is regulated hunting the unbridled carnage that opponents of hunting might imagine it to be. The hunting harvest of some birds, within the percentages that would die from natural causes, essentially has no effect on the population.

If necessary habitat is available and adequate reproduction is ongoing, many species easily can sustain a regulated harvest without compromise. Some species, like mourning doves, can support a bountiful harvest with no detriment.

There is a dramatic example of contrast with a similar species. A two-edged sword of habitat loss and a total lack of management was seen in the case of the passenger pigeon.

There are no passenger pigeons, once simply called wild pigeons, nowadays. We squandered an unbelievable abundance of them more than a century ago.

We think doves are plentiful at about 130 million, but the former passenger pigeon population is estimated to have been 3 billion to 5 billion (that’s with a B) over eastern and central North America. The last known of these pigeons died, leaving them extinct, in 1914.

These native wild pigeons were larger than mourning doves but otherwise similar. Whereas a dove is around 12 inches long, the passenger pigeon reached about 16 inches. The pigeon was slate blue to gray on upper body much like a dove, but males were coppery colored on the undersides. All had hints of purple like doves.

The pigeons ate a variety of seeds and nuts, but they flourished in forested land, apparently reliant on acorns as a major food source. They were highly migratory, not so much because of temperatures, but in relation to food sources. Mass numbers moved in response to the availability of seasonal food sources.

Passenger pigeons were more gregarious — flocky, if you will — than doves. Think of blackbird behavior. Pigeons moved more in mass numbers and roosted in concentrations that were crazy huge.

Into the 1800s, passenger pigeons were the most populous bird in North America and perhaps in the world. They were a massive presence in the skies over America’s forest East and Midwest.

Sometimes they were not to be seen, the flocks elsewhere. But when they came, they came in such vast numbers as to darken the skies.

There are accounts of pigeon migrations moving overhead (they cruised rapidly at about 60 mph) in a mile-wide flight line, passing in an unbroken mass for hours at a time. On the negative, it is said if you were under such a migration path, the pigeon poop would accumulate on the ground like a snowfall.

Where passenger pigeons would choose to roost, trees would be blackened with them. The weight of massed birds commonly broke down many trees, stripping them of their overburdened perches. There, too, the ground accumulated a layer of pigeon poop measured in inches.

People of the time were not oblivious to such a possible protein resource. Not only did early Americans use the pigeons for a subsistence food, it went big-time commercial. Sport hunting was popular, but enterprising folks market hunted and trapped passenger pigeons that were shipped

off by railroad to hungry buyers in major cities throughout the East.

They shot, caught them in nets, asphyxiated them with burning sulfur, set roosting trees afire, poisoned them with tainted corn — whatever it took. Farmers used to bring their hogs to fatten them up by feeding on injured pigeons around the roost after the commercial guys had their take.

Meanwhile, throughout the 19th century, development and the spread of civilization was at the core of clearing the land. Over a course of decades, much of the great Eastern forest was essentially eliminated.

John James Audubon said of an 1813 trip from Henderson to Louisville that, “the air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse.” He noted that shooters were lined up along the banks of the Ohio River, and that people thereabouts “ate no meat but pigeons for a week or more.”

He later called the exploitation of passenger pigeons “dreadful havoc,” but he was convinced no amount of killing could possibly reduce the flocks as long as the forest remained.

Passengers pigeons, our bird version of the endless bison, caught it from both ends. Afforded no protection from harvest and with their necessary habitat depleted, an unconceivable population was unconceivably wiped out. It’s another testament to man’s moronic abuses.

That we still have an abundant dove population as well as generous dove hunting opportunities is a testament to modern wildlife management … and people regulation.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.