Superior History

Stories of passenger pigeons

Passenger pigeon flock being hunted in Louisiana, published in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News on July 3, 1875. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

“In the first eight or ten years of my experiences in Marquette, the flight of pigeons in the spring was a feature of life here. Everyone turned out with shot-guns.” — John M. Longyear

In 1833, renowned ornithologist John James Audubon, identified the passenger pigeon as the most abundant bird in North America and spent extensive time studying them. He felt the study of migration patterns was the most important aspect of learning about the birds. Migrating flocks were reported to number into the thousands, reaching a mile wide and at times blocking the sun.

Audubon observed, “The multitudes of Wild Pigeons in our woods are astonishing. Indeed, after having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact. Yet I have seen it all, and that too in the company of persons who, like myself, were struck with amazement.” Others, such as Native Americans, early settlers, and even U.P. landlooker and Marquette philanthropist John M. Longyear, were interested not in research but in sharing amazing stories of their encounters with flocks.

Early settlers to America were astounded by this unusual migratory bird, which lived east of the Rockies. In 1663 a Jesuit said of a flight of pigeons, “Among the birds of every variety to be found here, it is to be noted that Pigeons abound in such numbers that this year one man killed a hundred and thirty-two at a single shot. They passed continually in flocks so dense, and so near the ground, that sometimes they were struck down with oars.”

In May 1850, a young Potawatomi tribal leader camped at the headwaters of the Manistee River in southwest Michigan. Years later he told of hearing a loud noise coming through the forest. It sounded to him like a large herd of horses were running through the forest or it was distant thunder, although it was a calm, clear day. Soon, in the distance, he saw a flock of millions of wild pigeons headed his way.

Newspapers documented the flight of these birds. Although passenger pigeons could weave effortlessly through forests, they appeared to have difficulty navigating through towns. In the village of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, in April 1876, a flock flew into the community. By the time the flock passed, a number of birds were found dead after flying into the sides of buildings. In August 1886, the Green Bay Gazette reported of a flock that flew into a town. Unlike the birds in Sturgeon Bay, this flock had luck on their side. The birds flew into the front door of a building and flew through unscathed as the back door was open.

Reminiscing about his first years in Marquette, John M. Longyear was surprised by Marquette residents who dashed to spots where they could shoot the birds. “In 1877, I boarded at Lobdell’s on Arch Street and during pigeon season, I used to lie in bed in the morning and hear the shot rattle all over the roof. There were ridges of rock just north of Arch Street on which shooters used to stand and blast away at the pigeons as they flew over.”

Pigeons were killed and live trapped in massive numbers as the United States increased in population. Although the birds were an abundant food source for families of little means, many people hunted the birds as a means of sport or to advance financially. As trains began to travel across country, the hunting of passenger pigeons increased. Huge numbers of birds began to be shipped and sold on a wide scale to cities throughout the country. As an example of the numbers of pigeons shipped, in Petoskey alone in 1878, 490,000 dead birds and 86,400 live ones were shipped to markets.

Birds were purchased for a number of reasons. Fancy restaurants purchased live trapped squabs (young pigeons) to fatten up and offer as a special on their menus. Live pigeons were also sold to sportsmen for target shooting. John Longyear remembered that wagonloads of dead pigeons were collected and used to feed hogs.

Billions of pigeons, which had existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, began to dwindle after the 1870s and by 1900 the wild passenger pigeon became extinct. Reportedly the last sighting of a passenger pigeon in Marquette County was at the Huron Mountain Club. Marge, the last passenger pigeon, died in captivity at the Cincinnati zoo in 1914. Longyear observed “These pigeons, as we all know, disappeared . . . . . no one seems to know what became of them.” The killing and selling of massive numbers of passenger pigeons from enormous flocks during migration was eventually cited by scientists as a major reason the passenger pigeon became extinct.

To test your local history knowledge on passenger pigeons and more, join us for Trivia, Take Two! It will be held Wednesday, April 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Marquette Regional History Center, 145 W. Spring St.

Compete for prizes and bragging rights. Teams of four or five friends can register now by calling the history center at (906)-226-3571. Registration closes at 6 the night of the event.

Cost is $5 per person and includes snacks, you can bring your own libations.