In 1914, on the first day of September, the passenger pigeon went extinct. Considering the bird’s once-plentiful population, it’s easy to wonder if we’ve learned anything from this tragic chapter in human history.
It would be hard for people today to visualize the vast passenger pigeon population of the 1700s and 1800s if the bird’s numbers remained today. If it wasn’t for the market netters (those who caught the birds in nets and then sold them) of the 1800s totally eliminating the passenger pigeon, the habitat destruction that had occurred by 2000 would have done it. Timber harvest, agriculture practice and expanding communities of human population would have taken their toll.
The market netter of those days could take a thousand pigeons in a single setting with little effort. Records from the New York netters showed that professional netters could take up to 3,000 pigeons in a single go. One shipment from a Missouri wholesale netter required 15 tons of ice in order to preserve all the squab (young birds) during transportation to market. Records show that one professional netter from Michigan not only captured more than 3,500 adult birds, but cut down nesting trees for easy access to the 50 or more nests that held their young squab. In 1878, the last of the passenger pigeons was netted in Michigan State. During those last few weeks, more than a billion pigeons were netted and shipped to market by the netters.
The pigeon of this story’s opening paragraph died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens.
The netters were one major contributing factor to the demise of the pigeon. Another was the habitat destruction that accompanied virgin forests being cut down. This drastic change spelled the ultimate doom for the bird. Wildlife specialists know that it is not just drastic change that nature deals the cards on, but an endless gradual change that must be faced by game and non-game species alike. The habitat changes by the day, by the month and even by the second.
The real question is whether human’s destructive quest for land will intimately destroy the wildlife habitat, as I personally feel it inevitably will. And if so, will we, with our unprecedented pressure on the changing environment, eventually destroy ourselves?