The Passenger Pigeon
Early European settlers in North America frequently commented on the vast numbers of graceful blue pigeons that filled the skies. One of the first settlers in Virginia remarked:
There are wild pigeons in winter beyond number or imagination, so thick that even have they shadowed the sky from us.
Passenger pigeons could live in such huge populations as they lacked natural predators, apart from hawks and eagles. But these pigeons were surprisingly vulnerable to humans. As a female laid only one egg a year, losses were not readily replaced. Nesting in vast colonies and migrating in huge flocks rendered the birds easy to attack.
Native Americans captured passenger pigeons in large nets. By the 1630s, European settlers were doing the same. The scale of human slaughter was limited until the early 1850s, when railroads linked the Great Lakes with New York. Then it took only 50 years – supplying cheap meat to the East Coast – to wipe the passenger pigeon out; a species that once numbered in the billions.
Wild passenger pigeons were gone around 1900, when the last birds in Ohio succumbed. Martha, the pathetic last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.