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Our Rich History: Passenger Pigeons were once a common sight, and food source, in the Tristate

By Steve Preston
Special to the NKyTribune

Imagine the noonday sun blackened by what appears to be a moving and expanding cloud of smoke a mile wide that goes on for days. As you look closer, you realize it is not smoke but millions upon millions of birds, Passenger Pigeons to be exact.

Photo_01: Passenger pigeon. Photo by James St. John at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Available here.

While today the Tristate will never experience this, the residents of the 1800s saw them quite often, with diminishing scope as the nineteenth century came to a close.

We all know the sad story of Martha—the lone surviving Passenger Pigeon who spent her last days at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, dying on September 1, 1914. She was the last of a species of bird that once accounted for anywhere from 25-40 percent of the total bird population of North America. The Passenger Pigeon played a role in the history and prehistory of the peoples who populated this area.

The Passenger Pigeon was a large bird eighteen inches long, or slightly larger than the pigeons you see today around overpasses. The males had red eyes, a blue-gray back and head with an orange neck and belly. Females were slightly smaller and rather drab, with a grayish-brown appearance.  Described as a pigeon built for speed and maneuverability, they were the endurance athletes of the bird world, flying constantly in search of food or nest sites.

By all accounts, Passenger Pigeons were also delicious, a fact that played into their eventual extinction. Since prehistory, residents of the Tristate area used these birds as a food source. In many archaeological sites in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana that deal with prehistoric cultures, the remains of Passenger Pigeons have been found.

As with any migratory food source, location of Passenger Pigeon remains are often hit-or-miss. The fact they show up so readily in Ohio and Kentucky excavations indicates their significance to the prehistoric diet. Among historic Native American tribes, the Passenger Pigeon was both sacred and consumable, often on the menu of special “feast” events.

The historic record has account after account of the sheer magnitude of this bird’s impact on the landscape of early America and the Ohio Valley. As a child in the 1810s and 1820s, United States Senator Samuel Cary remembered:

“Flocks of unnumbered millions of pigeons, which by their numbers darkened the sky, and by their movements produced a roaring like the waves of the sea, were often seen. Day and night the air was black with them. Occasionally a flock would alight in the woods in such numbers as to break large branches from the tree.”

Photo_02: “Passenger pigeon flock being hunted in Louisiana. The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Available here.

  John James Audubon recounted a Kentucky flock that passed for “three days in succession.” He went on to state how the local populace fed upon the shot birds “for a week or more.” Mary Howitt of Hamilton County, Ohio recalled in 1857 a flock that, “with steady flight” over Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, lasted for “several days.”

Cincinnati resident F.W. Langdon described a flock from the fall of 1865 taking “the greater portion of three whole days” to pass. He recounted residents who ringed the hills around the Mill Creek Valley shooting at this flock.

These accounts seem fantastical, but they were not, especially when you consider that there were similar reports of massive flights in other parts of the Eastern United States and Canada at the same time. It is estimated that the population of Passenger Pigeons at the beginning of the nineteenth century was in the billions.

Sadly, overhunting took its toll of the Passenger Pigeon population across the entire United States.

Natural reproduction could not keep up with the slaughter. Passenger Pigeons raised only one chick a breeding season.  These young birds, known as “squabs,” were more sought after than the adults because of their tender meat. Hunters would sneak into nesting areas, which could be as large as three miles wide and forty miles long, and use a stick to knock the squab out of the nest. Adults were shot or caught with a net. Barrels of 200-300 birds would be shipped to restaurants.

It’s obvious to see that even this enormous population could not sustain itself in the face of this kind of human depredation.  By the end of the 1870s, the number of Passenger Pigeons began to decrease drastically. By 1890, flights of large flocks had ceased to exist.

The last documented wild Passenger Pigeon killed in Kentucky occurred on July 27, 1898. In Ohio it was in Pike County, 1900. The last surviving member of her kind, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo, September 1, 1914. It only took man about a century to extirpate a species so abundant as to black out the sun with its flights.

The Cincinnati Zoo has a memorial to Martha. She now resides in the Smithsonian.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

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One Comment

  1. Ted Weil says:

    This article is particularly timely as there is currently a production running as part of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival entitled “Martha” which is all about the last passenger pigeon. It was written and directed by local playwright and actor, Sean Mettey and it is a very creative look at how we might view our identity if we knew we were the last of our kind.

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