Monday, March 19, 2012

Hunting the Passenger Pigeon

The Detroit News has a great article on the demise of the Passenger Pigeon, with a focus on events in Michigan when the birds were still plentiful. People working for William B. Mershon, who was disturbed by the pace of slaughter, documented one mass killing in 1878:
The pigeon kill in 1878 outside of Petoskey, Mich., was considered the last big slaughter of pigeons which led to their extinction. By the 1860s there was a group of 500 men who called themselves "professional pigeoners." Their killing methods, the railroad, and the advent of the telegraph which kept them aware at all times of the flocks, ensured the pigeons' doom. However, most people who killed pigeons were farmers and their families....

The pigeoners poured into Petoskey. Mershon's friend noted from the hotel register that they came from New York, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland, Iowa, Virginia, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota and Missouri. The pigeoners hurried about town, comparing market reports, discussing the price for squabs and quotes for live birds. They established packing houses and wagons with teams for hauling out dead birds. Locals would be hired for these jobs as well as being trained on trapping and killing birds.

The pigeons arrived by the millions to roost and the pigeoners were stretched out alongside the birds for 40 miles. They killed birds from daylight to dark, hauling wagon after wagon of dead and live birds for 50 days. It was estimated that they may have killed a billion birds.

Mershon's men rode horses up and down the line, breaking traps, harassing the pigeoners, prodding the lone overworked sheriff to prevent illegal slaughter. They were seen as a nuisance and chased off with shotguns.

Eventually by summer it was over. They wrote about their efforts "to check the slaughter" in a Chicago publication, American Field Magazine. A music professor and friend of Mershon's, H.B. Roney, who led the group, said that the work was futile: four against 2,000 (professionals and locals).
Read the rest.

Mershon later wrote a book, The Passenger Pigeon, which compiled historical accounts, life histories, and notes on the status of the then-vanishing species. That book is available, free, on

(via 10,000 Birds)