Even though we live in an age when all the food we could possibly want is packaged in neatly chilled rows for our convenience, people still love killing things. We can’t help it. Much to the dismay of angry animal rights protesters, we seem to be programmed to enjoy shooting stuff. Unfortunately, this tendency has backfired on more than one occasion. Our inability to control ourselves continues to damage the natural world and we all too often turn a blind eye to the danger. While we are beginning to recognise the need for self restraint, for some animals it’s already far too late.
For thousands of years, the passenger pigeon was an ever-present in the skies of North America. Its range extended from the Rocky Mountains to the shores of the Atlantic, up to southern Canada and down to northern Mississippi. A nomadic flyer, the bird spent its life travelling in huge groups in a constant search of food.
Its success was astonishing. Migrating flocks of birds were described by early naturalists as being so dense that they blocked out the sun and went unbroken for tens of miles. At the height of the pigeon’s population, there were believed to be anywhere between three to five billion birds in North America - constituting up to 40% of all land birds on the continent. Such numbers made it, many experts believe, the most populous bird on earth.
Unfortunately for the passenger pigeon, it also happened to be absolutely delicious. Native American tribes had hunted the bird for centuries, prizing it as a readily available source of protein. However, the vast numbers of birds and rudimentary hunting techniques meant that the two species had relatively little effect on one another. In fact, there is evidence that Native American land use helped cultivate many plants that the birds relied upon for food. This relationship soon went south with the arrival of white people.
The first European settlers were understandably blown away by the size and scale of the passenger pigeon flocks. As soon as they learned that the bird could be eaten, hungry settlers rushed to the gunsmith. Birds soon became a staple of 18th and 19th century American marketplaces, with one report from 1771 detailing that 50,000 pigeons were sold in a year in one stall alone. However, there seemed to be no end to the “feathered river” that continued to flow across the sky.
The pigeons did not help themselves with their own diet. A particular penchant for farmers’ grain led many to regard them as a pest. Not only were they a source of one sort of food, they were actively involved in destroying another. This was all the excuse people needed to take the assault to the next level.
The 19th century saw a ruthless change in American attitudes to pigeon hunting. Huge nets were constructed to funnel flocks to their doom. At a large nesting site in Michigan, over 50,000 birds were killed each day for five months, all either shot or clubbed to death. People began to host competitions for the most pigeons shot in a single day. The top prize was awarded for the first to 30,000.
Such a sustained slaughter could not continue. By the time attempts at protection were implemented in the late 19th century, it was already too late. The population was devastated. Even now, hunting still continued in communities where the concept of conservation was poorly understood, and passenger pigeon breast became an ever more expensive delicacy on contemporary menus. From being the most populous bird on earth at the start of the 1800s, the last passenger pigeon eventually died in captivity in 1914.
Today, the passenger pigeon's demise is regarded as the first major example of mass, man-made extinction. If the sad story of this unlucky bird teaches us anything, it’s that we can’t take our natural resources for granted. However plentiful a food may seem, if we don’t look after it we could destroy it forever. If we don’t learn from history, there are destined to be many more delicious dinners that go the way of the passenger pigeon.