Passenger Pigeons Once Were Slaughtered By Millions
The Species Is Now Extinct

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, NJ
as published in the Hunterdon County Democrat, April 17, 1930

For the stories of the wildwood
Of the mountain and the plain
(Any stories heard in childhood)
Are the stories that remain.

Yes, the stories that were told us seventy years ago still come up in quiet hours to rouse the drowsy mind and stir the sluggish blood. Some scattering ones that do not seem to fit well in any particular place may recall fond memories in older people;  and may be of more or less interest now and then to one of the younger generation, not for themselves but as inklings of the older times. Present conditions are not calculated to make them as vivid as when memory recorded them so long ago; yet perhaps enough may be depicted, even by a limping pen, to give a fair idea of things then made so clear, often quite thrilling and always interesting.

Passenger Pigeon, courtesy Google Images

The great tales told of passenger pigeons—of their surprising numbers and indiscriminate slaughter—are among the first and most captivating on memory’s tablet. I never saw a great flock of these birds, but did see many small ones of any-where from five to fifty.1  The really big flocks were then only memories to older people, and were already lamented as gone, never to return. Our grandfathers told with much enthusiasm of having seen “the sky so full of pigeons that the sun was shut out as by a canopy of dense clouds”—a regular occurrence every year at the time of their migration to or from their nesting places father north.

Birds Were Slaughtered

The birds were slaughtered in great numbers by every conceivable device. Some, we were told, by the simple process of standing at some favored spot on a hill and knocking them down with a club. The slaughter by firearms was pictured as being so great that one was prone to wonder what the killers could have done with so many birds. And then to think of shooting into flocks flying or resting in dense order, killing them by the thousands and probably wounding as many more, to drop along the way or possibly to reach their destination in crippled misery. The line of their flight could easily be imagined as strewn with dead and dying birds—not a pleasant spectacle, though seen only as a mental picture.

But there was another way, seemingly more humane but probably fatal to quite as many pigeons. It certainly did not wound great numbers to suffer and die on their further flight. The “pigeon net” was an important part of many a man’s sporting outfit. No; let us say rather, of his business equipment, for netting pigeons seemed more like an industry than a sport. The great net was set in a place carefully selected and prepared beforehand, somewhere along the usual route of thickest migration. It must be on a spot which the birds could readily see and to which they might be easily allured.  The alighting within the scope of the net was not left to chance. Food was used as bait, but was mostly supplementary to the more effective “stool pigeon.” This was a bird saved for the purpose from some previous catch and fastened in the center of the area to be covered by the net when sprung. Great numbers of its kind were sure to gather around this lone member, curious to find out what had attracted it to the ground.

Netting the Birds

The springs for the net, we were told, were often slender saplings, preferably hickory because of its great elasticity. These, with cords from the net properly attached, were bent over and set with triggers, after the usual manner of setting traps and snares. From the triggers other cords ran back to the hiding place of the trapper. When a satisfactory number of birds had gathered around the stool pigeon, the net was sprung, catching hundreds of birds beneath it. So the stories ran. Of course, I came along too late to witness such trapping. But there is no doubt that “netting pigeons” was largely carried on in our neighborhood and hundreds of others away back in earlier days. Though we have lost an industry based largely upon the stool pigeon, we have retained the name of this important factor. But it is probable that few who now use the term “stool pigeon” in its later application ever stop to think how it originated, and still fewer to lament the consequence of its efficiency.

Let the writer confess with shame that late as was his arrival in the day of carrier pigeons, he did contribute one death toward the total extinction of the species.2 While hunting squirrels one day, I saw five or six pigeons alight in the top of a tree not far away. For some reason hard to explain now, I deliberately shot one of them, then picked up my trophy and embraced my first opportunity to admire the iridescence and beautiful lines of nature’s perfection in machinery for rapid flight.

It is safe to say that there is not a passenger pigeon in the world today. Some forty years ago a great sum—I think $50,000—was offered for a living pair of these birds. They were wanted as breeders by a Western institution, in hope to rescue the species from extermination. The offer was kept open for a few years, but there was never a claimant. Science became convinced that no such birds were in existence and none have been reported since.

Addendum (4/3/11):  It is easy to confuse Passenger Pigeons with Carrier Pigeons and Homing Pigeons. Just remember that Passenger Pigeons were native North American pigeons. Their closest relative living today is the Mourning or Turtle Dove, which looks very similar. Passenger Pigeons seem to have had more blue coloring than the soft gray Mourning Dove. Homing Pigeons, on the other hand, came from Europe and the Middle East, and are basically just well-trained ordinary “Rock Pigeons” that are so common in urban spaces. The Carrier Pigeon is just a well-trained Homing Pigeon, capable of carrying a message.
I am no pigeon expert; Wikipedia just lets me pretend I’m smart.

  1. Egbert Bush was born in 1848, so from this we can conclude that large flocks were pretty much gone in New Jersey by 1850.
  2. I am surprised that Bush used the term carrier pigeon here, which is a different bird, and, unlike the passenger pigeon, is not extinct.