"Those of us who are city dwellers so often forget that we share our space with a host of creatures that can enrich and enliven our lives if we simply take the time to notice and enjoy them. Jerry noticed and enjoyed every creature—from the caterpillar to the butterfly, the sparrow to the falcon, the wild onion to the orchid—and helped us see and appreciate them as well. This book, from an extraordinary man, is an extraordinary gift to all of us who inhabit Chicago wilderness and other urban ecosystems."—Bruce Boyd, The Nature Conservancy
"Some nature writing is lofty to the point of being nearly anti-social. But Jerry Sullivan comes across as 'the regular guy,' writing with wisdom, insight, and affection for bugs, birds, and the folks next door. Hunting for Frogs on Elston is by turns surprising, hilarious and heartbreaking. Deep in each piece is a reassuring confidence that the love of nature is a very human thing."—Stephen Packard, Director, Audubon - Chicago Region
The Passenger Pigeon
April 4, 1986
When the Pilgrim fathers were shooting birds for their supper, two kinds of doves lived in eastern North America. One came to be called the mourning dove for its soft, moaning call. The other, a vagrant that could cruise at 60 miles per hour, was named the passenger pigeon.
They were both seedeaters. The slightly larger passenger pigeon specialized in big seeds, eating acorns and the nuts of hickories, beeches, and chestnuts. The mourning dove ate the seeds of dozens of kinds of plants.
Mourning doves lived in thickets. They invaded land cleared of trees by fire, windstorm, or farmers, nesting in the brush or trees at the borders of the clearing and feeding on the open ground and at the edge of the woods. They probably moved into the farmyard early in our history. They now nest in parks, cemeteries, suburban yards, and the quieter neighborhoods in the city. In the beginning, they were around, but not especially abundant.
The passenger pigeon may have been the most abundant bird since archaeopteryx fluttered its first feather back in the late Jurassic. John James Audubon rode the 55 miles from Henderson, Kentucky, to Louisville one day in autumn 1813, and through the whole long day, he rode under a sky darkened from horizon to horizon by a cloud of passenger pigeons. He estimated that more than a billion birds had passed over him. In 1866, a cloud of birds passed into southern Ontario. It was a mile wide, 300 miles long, and took 14 hours to pass a single point. Latter-day estimates suggest something in excess of 3.5 billion birds in that flock. The continental population may have been as high as 6 billion, a number that could represent anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of all the birds in North America 350 years ago.
The passenger pigeon became extinct in the wild by 1900 at the latest, and the last known individual, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The mourning dove is probably more common now than it was in 1620. The continental population is estimated at 400 million, that despite the fact that it is a game bird and hunters bag about 30 million birds a year.
The demise of the passenger pigeon has drawn a lot of scientific attention. How do you go from the most ever to zero in less than a century? The current consensus is that the passenger pigeon was done in by its way of life. Accustomed to a high-speed life on a continental scale, the pigeons couldn't survive the invasion of humans who measured the world with transits and plotted section lines and property boundaries to the fraction of an inch.
Primeval North America was mostly wooded east of the Plains, and the huge flocks of pigeons toured the entire region in search of food and roosts. They spent the winter at the southern end of the forest—the gulf states, Tennessee, and Arkansas—and the summer around the Great Lakes, in New England or upstate New York, or in Ontario.
And throughout the year, all those billions of birds lived mostly together. The population consisted mainly of a small number of very large flocks, groups of a billion or more that roosted together in winter, migrated together in spring, and nested together in summer. There has never been anything like them. There are other nomadic birds, northern seedeaters like crossbills that follow the good tree-seed crops from place to place, but no species ever wandered through such a rich environment, a half million square miles of woods where warm summers and abundant rainfall produced huge food surpluses for the birds.
Wherever they went, they must have hit like the plague. Imagine if you were a turkey living on acorns in a Georgia woodland. Life is good, until one day a billion passenger pigeons move in down the block. They all plan to eat acorns too.
And the trees. The birds roost in piles, one atop the other, weighing down limbs so heavily that they snap. The dung rains down, burying the trunks in tons of droppings. When the flock leaves in spring, the roost is mostly dead trees.
To feed their hordes, the pigeons needed a large area of forest that was enjoying a great year, a year when every oak produced an abundance of acorns. A nesting colony might take over 50 square miles, and inside that area, every branch was loaded with nests. As many as 500 birds might nest in a single tree.
Imagine the scene. Birds several deep on the branches, a constant roar of wings as birds take off and land, the smell of droppings and of the pigeons themselves—people say you could smell the passing flocks—the crack of branches. So many birds that a man in Ohio could remember firing a 12-gauge pistol into a bush in the dark and bringing down 18 pigeons with the shot. And every hawk, owl, crow, raven, vulture, fox, raccoon, and weasel within miles getting fat feeding on eggs, unfortunate nestlings, and awkward squabs fresh from the nest.
They stayed only a month, just long enough to throw together a nest, incubate one egg—the usual number—and feed the nestling until it was two weeks old. Then the adults left, abandoning the squabs, who lived on their fat for a few days until they learned to feed themselves. And then they took off. The huge nesting grounds would be deserted. The birds might not return to this spot for decades.
Passenger pigeons show what mobility can do for you. If you can fly 60 miles an hour for a solid day and night, you can turn half a continent into your feeding ground: breakfast in Tennessee, dinner in Michigan.
And those enormous numbers just overwhelmed anything else. All the predators who gathered around nesting sites ate until they couldn't hold any more, but they couldn't make a dent in the big flocks. The local predators faced local population controls that kept their numbers in some sort of balance with their prey. Suddenly add a billion or so prey animals to the scene, and the carnivores just don't have enough fangs and claws to take advantage of their windfall.
Passenger pigeons did a sort of avian version of slash-and-burn agriculture. Tropical people slash the trees and brush from a patch of land, burn everything they cut, and then farm the land. When yields begin to fall, they move on, and the wild plants return. It is a benign way to use the land as long as you have enough space, and as North America became settled, the passenger pigeon began to lose its space.
And we hunted it unmercifully. As many as a thousand men worked as professional pigeon hunters in the late 19th century. They traveled around the country on the new railroads, searching for nesting grounds. When they found one, they killed all they could. When the birds moved to a new roost, the hunter followed them. The market was enormous. New York City could absorb 100 barrels of pigeons a day. Each barrel held 500 to 600 birds. Remember that this was a bird with a very low reproductive potential. Laying just one lone egg every year, it could not keep up its numbers in the face of hunting pressure and habitat loss.
And finally, it could not change its ways. Colonies of 100 to 500 or even 5,000 birds might have been able to survive. But the birds couldn't seem to reproduce successfully in such small groups. A passenger pigeon was too stressed to function unless it had millions of its fellows right in its face. And so the passenger pigeon passed.
Meanwhile, the mourning dove was laying low. The one habitat it shunned was the deep woods, and as the settlers advanced they cut those and replaced them with pastures, orchards, woodlots, and ornamental shrubs, and the mourning dove could slip quite happily into any of those situations. It could place its flimsy looking stick nest in any tree or shrub, and it could nest as often as five times a summer.
You can see them almost all over town right now. The males are cooing their territorial announcement. In the air, they fly fast, as most pigeons do, and their wings are pointed. Their tails are long and bordered with white. On the ground, they are brown, smaller and slimmer than a street pigeon, with a single dark spot on the side of the neck.
In the stable environment of primeval America, the passenger pigeons could live in their billions. They had learned to exploit the forest like no other animal. But animals that require a continent to live their lives are likely to die in these times. The bison herds that used to migrate from Alberta to Texas are long gone. Only the African wildebeest and the barren ground caribou still operate on the epic scale. Animals today live in reserves, little islands of wildness, and those that do well stay put. If you need 50 square miles of fresh new forest every year, if the only reserve that could hold you would have to stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior, if you can't get along in groups of less than a few million, you might as well hang it up.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 210-13 of Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales from Field & Street by Jerry Sullivan, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press and of the author.