A woodblock engraving from 1875 of passenger pigeons in flight in Louisiana. The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News

On an early spring day in 1900, 14-year-old Press Clay Southworth saw a big bird perched high on a tree near his Pike County, Ohio, home.

He shot it with his family’s 12-gauge shotgun.

When he took his prize inside, Southworth later recalled, his surprised mother exclaimed, “It’s a passenger pigeon!”

In nearly every account detailing the extinction of passenger pigeons, which once darkened the skies of North America in vast numbers, Southworth’s shot is presented as a telling moment because, supposedly, nobody ever again saw a passenger pigeon in the wild.

It turns out, though, that those stories are wrong.

Call it a sad footnote that history somehow forgot, but four years after Southworth took aim, somebody in Bar Harbor gunned down a female passenger pigeon.

That bird on Maine’s Mount Desert Island may have been the last passenger pigeon to fly free on this planet.

There are tales of passenger pigeons seen for a few more years, including a claim by a sharp-eyed President Theodore Roosevelt vacationing in Virginia, but none were confirmed by any experts.

The one in Maine, however, convinced at least a few authorities of the time and nobody ever found any particular reason to disbelieve it.

This circa 1854 oil painting of a passenger pigeon by a student of John Cloudman in Portland was shown at the Maine State Museum in Augusta in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of passenger pigeons going extinct. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

FROM ABUNDANCE TO ETERNITY

Less than a century earlier, John James Audubon reported watching in awe as a flock of more than a billion passenger pigeons winged overhead in Kentucky.

“I have seen the sky literally covered with pigeons,” said John Burroughs, who lived in the Hudson Valley at the time. “You could not look up at any time” during the spring migration “without seeing a great mass of them sweeping across the sky.”

Named by the English from a derivation of the French word passager, which means to pass by in a fleeting manner, it is said there were more passenger pigeons in those days than all the other birds in North America combined.

Passenger pigeons, to their great misfortune, made for a tasty meal, their dark meat sometimes roasted and laid on buttered toast. Pigeon pies were another favorite.

Not everybody thought they were good eating, however. A 1921 story in Youth’s Companion recalled “old Maine housewives” mentioning their revulsion at the memory of the salted pigeons they had eaten on many a cold winter’s night.

Whether yummy or not, the birds were so common that a lot of Americans earned spare cash netting them by the score, packing them in barrels and shipping them off to market. They blasted them from the air, snagged them on the ground and rounded up every one they could find.

An 1881 rendering of hunters netting passenger pigeons, which appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

John Lewis Childs, a Franklin County native, wrote in The Warbler in 1905 about talking with an old settler in western Maine regarding passenger pigeons, then considered a nuisance to farmers because they’d eat newly strewn seeds.

Childs said the fellow told him they’d kill the birds by digging a long trench, scattering wheat in it and then, when the pigeons came to eat in great numbers, fire at them with “an old flintlock musket loaded with a handful of shot” that could kill as many as 75 birds at once.

When he was a young man in Oxford County, he said, large numbers of the pigeons would arrive at his family’s buckwheat patch in the area and by the time they left, half the birds would be dead from all the shooting.

As the nation grew so did the appetite for pigeons.

“They were followed everywhere by hundreds of men who made a business of netting and shooting them,” wrote E.H. Forbush in 1913. “Every great market from St. Louis to Boston received hundreds or thousands of barrels of pigeons practically every season.”

Those huge flocks vanished in a single lifetime, a modern-day massacre of a species once so common that they blotted out the sun.

“There was but one cause for the diminution of the birds, which was widespread, annual, perennial, continuous and enormously destructive: their persecution by mankind,” Forbush said after reviewing the history of the species shortly before it vanished forever.

Stuffed passenger pigeons on display at the Maine State Museum in 2014. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

LAST DAYS FOR PASSENGER PIGEONS

The end of the line for passenger pigeons came in 1914 when a 29-year-old female named Martha perished at the Cincinnati Zoo, the final remnant of a small group of the birds preserved in captivity in the forlorn hope of rescuing the species.

After Martha’s death, many took note of the Ohio boy who allegedly brought down the last passenger pigeon in the wild.

But there isn’t much doubt that he did not doom the species.

Someone killed a male passenger pigeon in Illinois a year later that remains in the collection of Millikin University.

Forbush reported that 12 dozen passenger pigeons were sold at a St. Louis market in 1902, two years after Southworth’s shot, apparently collected in Arkansas for the dining pleasure of the big city folk up the Mississippi River.

Even that, though, didn’t spell the end for some survivors in the woods.

THE BIRD IN BAR HARBOR

Dip into The Journal of the Maine Ornithological Society in June 1908 and there is a fascinating note from Ora Willis Knight, titled “Latest Authentic Record of the Passenger Pigeon in Maine.”

Knight, who authored a book on the birds of Maine that same year, wrote in the society’s journal that longtime fellow birder Harry Merrill of Bangor told him “that in the early summer of 1904 he saw a female passenger pigeon” at Baxter’s taxidermy shop in his hometown.

“The bird had recently been mounted and had the wrappings still on it when first seen by Mr. Merrill,” Knight wrote. “Mr. Baxter stated that it had been sent him from Bar Harbor in the flesh. The condition of the bird when seen by Mr. Merrill was such as to make certain that it had been recently killed.”

J. Bert Baxter had run his taxidermy store on Exchange Street since 1890, bragging that he could mount anything from whole animals to birds of every description.

Unfortunately, his record keeping was not on par with his artistry.

In an account for Bird-Lore, the official organ of the Audubon Societies, Forbush said that Baxter could not find the records that would indicate who sought his help to mount that passenger pigeon.

But, he said, “a careful investigation” of the claim “leads me to believe that this is an authentic record,” in part because Merrill was “perfectly competent to identify” a passenger pigeon.

Merrill clearly had no doubt about what he saw, placing a newspaper advertisement at the time that read, “A few years ago a PASSENGER PIGEON was sent from BAR HARBOR to be mounted by a Bangor taxidermist. Can anyone tell me who shot it, or who owns it at present? Write HARRY MERRILL, Bangor, Maine.”

He apparently never found the answer or the bird.

PIGEON TALES

In the course of a lifetime, the birds that had once filled the sky had been utterly erased.

John J. Audubon’s drawing of passenger pigeons.

Knight mentioned that many Mainers still alive in 1908 could easily remember the huge flocks that once descended on the state’s forests, where they ate beechnuts, acorns, berries, cherries and bugs.

“Netted by the million, met by destructive man at every feeding and breeding place, is it any wonder that the countless millions of the past are with us no longer?” Knight asked.

Stories of what happened are commonplace in the archives.

John Josselyn wrote in 1663 that during his second voyage to New England, he saw “millions and millions” of the pigeons in a flock “that to my thinking had neither beginning nor ending, length nor breadth, and so thick that I could see no sun.”

Even by then, he said, that he could buy a dozen pigeons “ready pulled and garbidged for three pence” in Boston. He also noted that he thought their numbers were “much diminished” of late because of “the English taking them with nets.”

Diminished or not, there were still a whole lot of pigeons for another two centuries all through Eastern forests, though perhaps somewhat reduced by the number of trees felled for farm fields.

Eighty years before Merrill’s effort to find that one stuffed specimen in Bangor, The Charlotte (North Carolina) Journal wrote in 1838 about the approach of a flock of passenger pigeons.

It described a “mighty feathered army” coming near “with a loud rushing roar” that could be readily mistaken “for a fearful tornado about to overwhelm the face of nature.”

Each bird was about 16 inches long, a bluish slate color to them. They had strong wings they used with “quick and very muscular strokes.”

Netting passenger pigeons in New England, depicted in an 1867 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

The Charlotte paper said they formed “a magnetic influence on the surrounding country,” attracting people from 20 miles around to come with their guns.

“Here old and young may be seen assembled all animated with the lively sensations arising from the exhilarating idea of shooting pigeons!” the paper said, adding the italics.

In 1855, Frank Leslie’s N.Y. Journal ran an account of a pigeon hunt along the Ohio River that wasn’t going well enough for one hunting party.

This is a recipe for passenger pigeon pie from Catherine Parr Strickland Traill’s 1857 book “The Canadian Settler’s Guide”: “Pigeons stuffed, larded and cooked in the bake-kettle, are very nice; and are tenderer, and more savory than when baked in the stove. To make a pot-pie of them, line the bake-kettle with a good pie-crust; lay in your birds, with a little butter on the breast of each, and a little pepper shaken over them, and pour in a tea-cupful of water — do not fill your pan too full; lay in a crust, about half an inch thick, cover your lid with hot embers and put a few below. Keep your bake-kettle turned carefully, adding more hot coals on the top, till the crust is cooked. This makes a very savory dish for a family.”

Hoping to do better, the hunters borrowed a howitzer from some nearby Army barracks, aimed the barrel at trees full of passenger pigeons and opened fire.

“Every shot brought down a shower of dead birds,” the writer bragged. They kept at it until they’d collected 3,000 of them.

In 1876, railroad freight records showed that a billion passenger pigeons were killed in Michigan alone, slaughtered by guns, bludgeons and pots of sulfur lit after dark to attract more birds. The rail lines carried the barrels to New York where the slaughtered birds sold for a penny apiece.

An account in Trout and Stream in 1880 described a scene near Erie, Pennsylvania where gunmen and trappers together “engaged in slaughtering the hapless birds,” not stopping until they had filled 150 barrels with 350 birds in each.

It’s no surprise, really, that by the 1880s the birds had grown scarce. By the 1890s, they were rarely seen. And by the turn of the century, no more than a smattering were left anywhere.

One of them, though, flew above the rocky Maine coast until 1904, when somebody gunned it down, too.

That the last known wild passenger pigeon’s last moment came in Bar Harbor should be worth remembering.


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