September 1, 2014, marked the centenary of the extinction of the wild North American passenger pigeon, once the most numerous land bird on earth. Estimates place its population in the early nineteenth century at three to five billion birds, about 40% of the continent’s bird life. Despite these prodigious numbers, the wild pigeon succumbed to relentless hunting and continual disruption of its nesting sites.
Like other lost species of the region—the Carolina parakeet and the heath hen—the passenger pigeon exists today only in taxidermied mounts and artists’ works made while the birds still lived.
The wild passenger pigeon, nicknamed the “blue meteor,” differed greatly from the present day urban pigeon or common rock dove. It is distinct also from the domesticated carrier pigeon or homing pigeon. The passenger pigeon was a svelte, swift-flying creature whose flocks of millions ranged over the woodlands of the east and middle west, from Canada to Louisiana. The flocks moved across their range in spring and fall migrations, but also covered vast distances in a year-round search for their favored foods, the mast of oaks, beeches and chestnuts, or, as in Brunswick, Maine, fruits of the rich blueberry barrens.
Native peoples took advantage of the birds as they clustered in vast colonial nesting sites. However, with the coming of European settlers and the eventual building of railroads and telegraph lines extending into formerly inaccessible regions, the birds came under fierce commercial exploitation. Professional market hunters followed every major roost and nesting site discovered, killing and shipping out hundreds of thousands of pigeons to feed the demands of urban markets. Netted pigeons kept alive could be fattened for market or sent in crates to furnish targets for pigeon-shooting tournaments.
With no federal laws to limit the unrestrained destruction of the birds, the flocks dwindled to a few individuals in the wild by the 1890s. A few small captive flocks remained, including the birds studied by Bowdoin graduate, Prof. Charles Otis Whitman of the University of Chicago. The last survivor of her species, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
The wild birds were never studied scientifically and very few photographs were ever made even of the captive birds. Thus, images studied from life, such as Aubudon’s magnificent portrait of passenger pigeons for the double elephant folio of Birds of America, provide invaluable documents of this vanished race. Using historic ornithological treatises, nineteenth century magazines and personal reminiscences, the exhibition encourages viewers to reflect upon the history of this bird and upon the rapid rate of species’ extinction. Originally displayed in concert with works by contemporary artist Walton Ford and Rebecca Goodale this exhibition as presented here offers a reflection on what has already been lost and puts forth a call to respond with thoughtful action to current threats to biodiversity.