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The Passenger Pigeon in Captivity

“This is the kind of fate any species can face...”

The greatest zoological wonder

E. H. Forbush writing in Bird Lore March-April 1913

Those of us who have witnessed the passing of the Pigeons find it hard to believe that all the billions of individuals of this elegant species could have been wiped off the face of the earth. Nevertheless, this is just what seems to have occurred. Even Prof. C. F. Hodge, cheerful optimist that he is, after three years’ search of North America, practically gives up the quest, and acknowledges that the investigation has not produced so much as a feather of the bird.

The editor of BIRD-LORE has asked me to write the story of the last Passenger Pigeon; but I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without giving an epitome of the causes which have brought about the extermination of the species. John Josselyn, in his "Two Voyages to New England" published in 1672, describes the vast numbers of the Pigeons and says, "But of late they are much diminished, the English taking them with nets." This seems to indicate that the extirpation of the species began within forty years after the first settlement of New England, and exhibits the net as one of the chief causes of depletion. From soon after the first occupancy of New England by the whites until about the year 1895, the netting of the Passenger Pigeon in North America never ceased. Thousands of nets were spread all along the Atlantic seaboard. Nets were set wherever Pigeons appeared, but there were no great markets for them to supply until the nineteenth century. Early in that century, the markets were often so glutted with Pigeons that the birds could not be sold at any price. Schooners were loaded in bulk with them on the Hudson River for the New York market, and later, as cities grew up along the shores of the Great Lakes, vessels were loaded with them there; but all this slaughter had no perceptible effect on the numbers of the Pigeons in the West until railroads were built throughout the western country and great markets were established there. Then the machinery of the markets reached out for the Pigeons, and they were followed everywhere, at all seasons, by hundreds of men who made a business of netting and shooting them for the market. Wherever the Pigeon nested, the pigeoners soon found them, and destroyed most of the young in the nests and many of the adult birds as well. Every great market from St. Louis to Boston received hundreds or thousands of barrels of Pigeons practically every season. The New York market at times took one hundred barrels a day without a break in price.

Now for the last living Passenger Pigeon of which we have any information. David Whittaker, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, procured a pair of young birds from an Indian in northeastern Wisconsin in 1888. During the eight succeeding years, fifteen birds were bred from this pair, six males and nine females. A part of this flock finally went to Professor C. 0. Whitman, of Chicago University, and several individuals of it are figured in this number of BIRD-LORE. In 1904 Professor Whitman had ten birds, but his flock, weakened by confinement and inbreeding, gradually decreased in number. The original Whittaker flock decreased also, and in 1908 there were but seven left. All of these died but one female, which was sent to the Cincinnati Zoological Society. At that time the society had a male about twenty-four years of age, which has died since.

The female in Cincinnati, so far as I know, is living still, and in all probability is the last Passenger Pigeon in existence. Protected and fostered by the hand of man, she probably has out lived all the wild birds, and remains the last of a doomed race. Many attempts have been made by gunners, market men, and others, to account for the disappearance of the Pigeons by attributing it to some other means than the hand of man. Stories have been published to the effect that the Pigeons migrated to South America or Australia; that they were destroyed by parasites or disease, or that they were all drowned in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Great Lakes, or in the Atlantic Ocean. There is nothing in substantiation of these tales that would be accepted as evidence by any careful investigator. The species never was recorded from South America or Australia, and the other explanations of its disappearance are either the result of fertile imagination or rest on hearsay evidence or rumors. Undoubtedly many Pigeons periodically were confused by fog and drowned in the Great Lakes, and there are two possibly authentic stories regarding the drowning of large numbers of Pigeons at sea. None of these occurrences, however, had any permanent effect on the numbers of the Pigeons, though the destruction of the forests undoubtedly had some effect. There is evidence that large numbers of these birds went north from Michigan in 1878, and great flocks bred in Manitoba that year. As Pigeons were sometimes overwhelmed by unseasonable snow-storms in the breeding season in the United States, they must have been still more subject to them in northern Canada; and if they were driven by persecution to the far north to breed, they might have been unable to raise young during the succeeding summers.

In “Michigan Bird-Life,” Professor Walter B. Barrows gives his opinion that some such catastrophe as this was accountable for a large part of the great diminution in their numbers. This opinion is logical, though there is no direct evidence in support of it. Those who study with care the history of the extermination of the Pigeons will see, however, that all the theories that are brought forward to account for the destruction of the birds by other causes than man’s agency are absolutely inadequate. There was but one cause for the diminution of the birds, which was widespread, annual, perennial, continuous, and enormously destructive-their persecution by mankind. Every great nesting-ground known was besieged by a host of people as soon as it was discovered, many of them professional pigeoners, armed with all the most effective engines of slaughter known. Many times the birds were so persecuted that they finally left their young to the mercies of the pigeoners, and even when they remained most of the young were killed and sent to the market and the adults were decimated. The average life of a Pigeon in nature is possibly not over five years. The destruction of most of the young birds for a series of years would bring about such a diminution of the species as occurred soon after 1878. One egg was the complement for each nest.

Before the country was settled, while the birds were unmolested except by Indians and other natural enemies, they bred in large colonies. This, in itself, was a means of protection, and they probably doubled their numbers every year by changing their nesting places two or three times yearly, and rearing two or three young birds to each pair. Later, when all the resources of civilized man were brought to bear against them, their very gregariousness, which formerly protected them, now insured their destruction; and when at last they were driven to the far North to breed, and scattered far and wide, the death rate rapidly out ran the birth rate. Wherever they settled to roost or to nest, winter or summer, spring or fall, they were followed and destroyed until, unable to raise young, they scattered over the country pursued every-where, forming targets for millions of shot-guns, with no hope of safety save in the vast northern wilderness, where the rigors of nature forbade them to procreate. Thus they gradually succumbed to the inevitable and passed into the unknown. Were it possible to obtain an accurate record of the receipts of Pigeon shipments in the markets of the larger cities only from 1870 to 1895, the enormous numbers sold and the gradual decrease in the sales would exhibit, in the most graphic and convincing manner possible, the chief cause of the passing of the Passenger Pigeon. While we have been wondering why the Pigeons disappeared, the markets have been reaching out for something to take their place, and we have witnessed also the rapid disappearance of the Eskimo Curlew, the Upland Plover, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and the Golden Plover, from the same cause.

Recollection of the Passenger Pigeon in Captivity

Wallace Graig writing in Bird Lore March-April 1913

The Passenger Pigeon was easily kept in captivity. All species of Pigeon take more or less well to cage-life, but the Passenger Pigeon throve and bred much more readily than some of the others. My own observations of it at close range were due to the privilege of studying in the pigeonry maintained by the late Prof. C. 0. Whitman. In Chicago and in Woods Hole, Professor Whitman kept Passenger Pigeons in pens of modest dimensions, yet they bred, and would probably have maintained their numbers permanently, had it not been for in-breeding, the flock being all descended from one pair. They took readily to the nest-boxes, nesting materials, and all other artificial arrangements of the aviary. They did not become exceedingly tame, did not eat out of one’s hand (so far as I saw); but, if effort had been made to tame them to this degree, who knows but it might have been successful? It is a great pity that attempts were not made earlier to breed these birds in confinement, for it is certain that the species could have been thus saved from extinction.

As an aviary bird, it would have been a favorite, on account of its beauty and its marked individuality. Constant close association with a bird in the aviary gives one a kind of intimate acquaintance with it which can seldom if ever, be gained by observation of wild birds. And for such study at close range the Passenger Pigeon was, and would ever have continued to be, a most interesting subject, for its strongly marked character appeared in every minute detail of its habits, postures, gestures, and voice.

In another place, I have given a somewhat technical and detailed description of certain habits observed in the captive Ectopistes migratorius. The great account of this species, that by Professor Whitman, remains still to be published in the monograph on Pigeons now being edited by Doctor Riddle. Here, in BIRD-LORE, I shall try to portray my clearest recollections of this magnificent bird; I shall add a few facts to those mentioned elsewhere; but I shall endeavor chiefly to convey to the minds of others something of the vivid impression made upon the minds of those who observed the Passenger Pigeon in life.The distinctive character of the species appeared, as has been said before, in every detail of its postures and movements. Such individuality is in great part impossible to describe, though it is felt unmistakably by everyone who has lived with the birds. Better than any mere description are the accompanying photographs. In them one can see that, with its long, pointed tail, its graceful, curved neck and head, and its trim, strong body and wings, the Passenger Pigeon was truly elegant. The Ring-Dove, by contrast, seems chubby in form and gross in movement. The Passenger was quick, active, vigorous, and graceful. The elegance of form and posture which shows in these photographs was matched by an elegance of motion in every act of the birds while on the perch or on the wing.

The Passenger was preeminently a bird of flight. Accordingly, its movements on the ground were a little awkward, in contrast to its grace when on the perch or in the air. It indulged often in a grand wing exercise, standing on a high perch and flapping its wings as if flying, now slowly, now power-fully, now leaving the perch to fly up and down the aviary, returning to the perch and again commencing the wing exercise, looking about for somewhere else to fly to. This species thus loved to fly more than did most of the other Pigeons. And though not afraid of men nor properly to be called "wild," it seemed sometimes to wish to escape from the pen and fly into the very sky.

Extreme powers of flight and extreme gregariousness seem to be the two fundamental traits in the peculiar habits of this species. But as to the latter trait, I did not notice that in the aviary the Passenger Pigeons flocked together more than the others, for all Pigeons are gregarious. The number of Passenger Pigeons being small, there was little opportunity for them to show their extreme flocking tendency. The old accounts tell us that in the great roosts some Pigeons alighted on the backs of those who had found perches; but this was probably only temporary and for lack of room, and I am sure the one alighted on must have resented it with angry voice and a struggle to throw the other off his back.

The noise made by the Pigeons in their great breeding colonies, as we are told by those who witnessed them, was deafening. Now, the Passenger Pigeon’s voice was very different from the voice of any other Pigeon. It had little of the soft, cooing notes so familiar in all sorts of Doves, but showed extreme development of the hard, unmusical notes which in most Doves are subordinate to the coo. This peculiarity seems to have been an adaptation to life in such extremely populous and hence noisy communities, where soft notes could scarcely be heard, and a bird had literally to scream in order to gain a hearing.

Let us examine the bird’s various notes in more detail, for they are interesting. The most characteristic utterance of the species was a voluble stream of ’talking,’ which ever varied with the mood of the bird, now rising into a loud, shrill scolding, now sinking into a soft, low clucking, and sometimes diminishing into single clucks. In addition to this voluble flow of talk, the male sometimes shouted one or two single, emphatic notes sounding like a loud keck, keck. All these sounds were full of meaning and expression. And their expressiveness was greatly enhanced by the bird’s movements. With the loud notes, as used in anger, he stood at full height, in his majestic way, and impressed the enemy by his bold appearance; and sometimes each loud keck was accompanied, quick as lightning, by a stroke of both wings, which struck the enemy if he was near enough, and powerfully frightened him if he was at a distance. On the other hand, with the soft, clucking notes, which expressed gentler feelings, even to devotion, the talking bird sidled along the perch to the bird to whom he was talking, and sometimes put his neck over her in a way which clearly showed his tender emotion. The Passenger was very quick and nimble in moving sideways along a perch, and this movement was so characteristic of his courting as to distinguish it from the courting of any other species.

Though all this chattering and kecking was so very expressive, it was never sweetly musical. The loud notes were strident, and even the faint notes were hard. The male, when courting, gave also a coo, which was musical, but so weak and faint that in my early memoranda I put it down simply as "the weak note;" and this little coo, sounding more like keeho, was usually given after the clucking or kecking notes, as a subordinate appendage to them. The species gave also a nest-call, as do the other Pigeons; but this, like the coo, was weak and inconspicuous compared with the strong and expressive notes described above.

The female of this, as of all other Pigeons, was more quiet than the male in both voice and movement, and distinguishable from him even when motion-less by a characteristic shyness in her attitude, especially in the pose of her head. So distinct was this difference between the sexes that, in looking at the accompanying photographs (which came to BIRD-LORE without data as to sex), I have ventured to state that four of the figures are of male birds and one is an excellent illustration of the female. I have not hazarded a guess as to the sex of the other four adult figures, for they are in postures less distinctive of sex. (In the attitude of alarm, especially, the male and female become very much alike.)

The courting behavior of this species, as is evident from what has been said about voice and gestures, was very different from the courting behavior of other Pigeons and Doves. Instead of pirouetting before the female, or bowing to her, or running and jumping after her on the ground, the Passenger Pigeon sidled up to her on the perch, and pressed her very close; and if she moved a little away from him he sidled up to her again and tried to put his neck over her.

The male was very jealous of his mate. And when they had a nest he was a most truculent fellow, attacking any other bird that came into the vicinity. The scenes which resulted were often most amusing. I once saw a male Passenger Pigeon go around the edges of the pen and oust every Pigeon that was sitting alone, mostly Band-tailed Pigeons and Cushats; but he did not attack the dozen or so that were all sitting on one perch. He was not really a good fighter: he made a bold attack, but if the attacked one showed fight, Ectopistes generally retreated.

The defense of the nest was accompanied, as may be imagined, by a lively chatter of scolding and kecking. The Passenger was one of the most garrulous of all the Pigeons in the great aviary. This was naturally connected with the fact of his having chattering notes instead of cooing ones. For a coo is more or less formal, and it cannot be uttered in the midst of all sorts of activity. But the chatter of the Passenger Pigeon was heard on all sorts of occasions, and accompanied nearly everything he did. If he picked up a straw and carried it to the nest, he talked about it while he was searching on the ground for straws, clucked a few times as he flew up, and chattered to his mate as he gave the straw to her.

I regret to say that I can give no account of the later stages in the breeding of this bird, the hatching and rearing of young. For in the year 1903, when I began to study this species, the birds had already lost the power to hatch and rear young. This much may be said, however, that the species continued vociferous throughout a long breeding season, and in some degree throughout the year. In August, when beginning to molt, it of course became more quiet, losing especially the feeble coo and the nest-call. The grand wing exercise also became reduced, for this performance seems to have been not merely a muscular exercise but also a display. Now, some species of Pigeon when they lose their coo, become almost silent. Not so Ectopistes. For the kecking and scolding and chattering continued, though with not quite the same vehemence as in the breeding season, throughout the autumn and winter. This again goes to show, as we have said, that the Passenger was one of the most garrulous of Pigeons, and would have made one of the most interesting of aviary Pets.

Stuffed bird comes home

Laurel Walker writing in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Jan. 22, 2010

More than a century ago, William Zimdars, a young Waukesha County man with a growing love of taxidermy, mounted a common bird—just like scores of others he’d stuff in his lifelong hobby.

Back then, unlike today, migratory birds weren’t protected. This bird - a now-extinct passenger pigeon—never was. Preserved for posterity at least in feathered skin if not flight, Zimdars’ lone passenger pigeon was unveiled Thursday night at the Horicon Marsh International Education Center. It’s on long-term loan from the family for all to see, along with about 100 other mounted birds the family donated outright.

Zimdars was born on a Brookfield farm in 1877—22 years before the last documented sighting of the passenger pigeon in Wisconsin when an 11-year-old boy shot it with a BB gun near Beaver Dam. The last passenger pigeon said to exist, named Martha, died in 1914 in a Cincinnati zoo.

When Zimdars found, was given or hunted the pigeon to practice his taxidermy skills, perhaps as a teenager, flocks of the birds that once blackened skies were already thinning dramatically.

Bill Volkert, state wildlife educator and naturalist at Horicon Marsh, said the Madison biochemist who researched newspaper-reported sightings over the decades estimated that in 1872 a colony of 136 million passenger pigeons nested between Tomah and Wausau. The nests stretched over an area 90 miles long and 8 to 12 miles wide. They were so thick—as many as 300 nests to the largest oak trees—that they were newsworthy.

By 1890, not a one that we know of was spotted in Wisconsin.

For all his life, Zimdars kept the rather drab brown adolescent pigeon, mounted on a natural perch, with his enormous taxidermy collection in an upstairs bedroom of his Waukesha home. He loved to show the “museum” off, said Katherine Robinson of Palatine, Ill., his granddaughter.

She remembers him as a tall, bespectacled, gentle man, a carpenter who spent his free time at his basement workbench engrossed in taxidermy like an artist before a canvas. The workbench had lots of little drawers, and as a small child, she’d love to see all the different kinds of bird and animal eyes he had stashed in them.

“My grandfather had the highest respect for animals,” she said. “He loved to tell stories of how they lived.” Robinson said she doesn’t remember a mention of the extinct species.

After he died in 1967 at age 90, his only child, son Harvey Zimdars, moved the collection to his Waukesha home and later to the home he built on Pewaukee Lake. The collection of songbirds, waterfowl, small mammals and the passenger pigeon filled floor-to-ceiling glass cases and three walls in a specially built basement room, said Robinson, Harvey’s daughter. She said a large number of other mounts were donated to the Waukesha County Historical Museum, too.

After Harvey died two years ago and his wife, Mildred, moved into Pewaukee senior housing, the family was looking for an outlet for the collection. The Milwaukee Public Museum already had a passenger pigeon, Robinson said. The Field Museum in Chicago has 10 on display and another 50 in its collection, a spokesman said.

A few others are on public display in Wisconsin, and it’s believed there may be hundreds or more than a thousand in public and private collections in the world. Zimdars’ young pigeon is somewhat unique, Volkert said, because most museums sought colorful adult males.

Katherine and Clyde Robinson were on a deadline to clear out the family home before an estate sale last summer and had to remove the migratory birds. Because they are federally protected, these kinds of collections must either stay in the owner’s family or go to a museum.

A taxidermist referred the Robinsons to Volkert and the new Horicon Marsh center.

Volkert said he almost blew the meeting off. He was in the midst of a short-staffed, busy week. The pool van he’d reserved was pre-occupied. The Robinsons had talked only vaguely about a bird collection and said nothing about a passenger pigeon. But late on Friday afternoon, he showed up.

As they inventoried the birds, Katherine Robinson mentioned the rare passenger pigeon and pointed to a case. Volkert said he was sorry, but it was a Hungarian partridge. They went upstairs and, tucked away in box, there it was.

“I almost fell over,” Volkert said. “I didn’t know what to say.”

After some discussion, the Robinsons agreed to lend the passenger pigeon to the Horicon Marsh center for at least two years. The passenger pigeon is already on display, and the rest of the colorful collection will eventually be exhibited.

Strangely, federal protection rules that determine what a family can do with its collection do not apply to the passenger pigeon, which was already gone by the time the act was passed.

Volkert said, “I’m convinced that it was the extinction of the passenger pigeon that initiated the entire North American conservation ethic.” If the most abundant bird that ever lived on the continent can be eliminated, he said, “this is the kind of fate any species can face if we don’t take care of them right now.”

Volkert said there’s definitely a collector’s market for the specimen, and it could end up in a private collection. “But no one will ever see it there,” he said. “Something like this doesn’t belong in a private collection.”

For its historical, cultural and scientific lessons, it belongs before the public, he said.

For now, it is.

The Passenger pigeon in Pop Culture

Ectopistes migratorius from the Audobon Society Magazine

The April 27, 1948 episode of the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program is titled “The Passenger Pigeon Trap,” in which McGee claims to have seen a Passenger Pigeon (he insists that the bird is “stinct”) and plans to trap it in order to sell it to the highest bidder. It turns out to be nothing more than a Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) sitting on top of a bus, which in McGee’s mind makes the pigeon a passenger. The term “stool pigeon” was first coined when Passenger Pigeons were captured, had their eyelids sewn shut, and were tied to stools. McGee insists the reappearance of the pigeons in 1944 is the first signal of the arrival of time travelers from XXI century USA

Across North America, place-names refer to the former abundance of the Passenger Pigeon. Examples include:

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee Pigeon Rivers in: Minnesota-Ontario, North Carolina/Tennessee, Michigan (four), and Wisconsin Pigeon Lakes: Minnesota, Wisconsin Pigeon Roost, Indiana Crockford Pigeon Mountain, Georgia Mimico, a neighborhood of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. However, even though the story of Passenger Pigeon lice has a happy ending (rediscovery), it is uncertain whether coextinctions of other parasites, even on the Passenger Pigeon, have occurred.

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