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Left to right: Passenger Pigeons, juvenile, male and female. Artist: <a href="">Louis Agassiz Fuertes</a>, circa 1910.
Left to right: Passenger Pigeons, juvenile, male and female. Artist: Louis Agassiz Fuertes, circa 1910.

Natural Selections: Passenger Pigeons

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Once so numerous they darkened the sky for days while migrating, passenger pigeons arrived in this region in early May each year. Dr. Curt Stager and Martha Foley remember this once ubiquitous species wiped out by human hunting in the nineteenth century.

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Synopsis of this Natural Selections Conversation:

There was a time when flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies of the Northeast, including the Adirondacks. They were a major part of the ecosystem. Dr. Curt Stager says, “One person calculated that passenger pigeons made up between a quarter and a third of all birds in North America at one time.”

According to Stager, they migrated in mile-long flocks with up to twenty layers of birds stacked above each other. Trees were covered with pigeons and when a new flock came in, they would sit on top of the pigeons already perched, breaking branches and bending trees over with their weight.

“They said it was a bird turd downpour, with maybe a foot of guano in the roosting area,” says Stager. The guano was so rich it would kill off all vegetation. Years later, after it decomposed, there would be lush growth. Some said that old passenger pigeon roosts were the best places to find ginseng, because the soil was so fertile.

Much of the ecology of the northern forest was shaped by the flight paths of these pigeons. The pigeon’s main source of food was beechnuts. These large flocks had a huge effect, outcompeting other animals such as deer, bears, and red squirrels that also depended on beechnuts to survive.

What became of these huge flocks? "The last remaining passenger pigeon died in 1914 in captivity," says Stager. "They were on their way out slowly by the early 1800s and this picked up around the late 1800s." The main reason for the bird’s demise was indiscriminate hunting by humans that disrupted the nesting areas. The pigeons laid their eggs all at once in the nesting area. If the whole flock was driven away; it left them unable to reproduce for that year.

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