Passenger Pigeons

Source: Birds Illustrated by Color Photography [January, 1898]. A Monthly Serial designed to Promote Knowledge of Bird-Life.

Passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) were migratory birds who wintered in the southern United States and migrated north in the early spring. The northern migration was of stupendous proportions: many historic accounts describe how flocks of migrating pigeons would stretch for miles, take all day to pass overhead, and were sometimes heavy enough to block the sun and darken the skies.

Ectopistes with nest
Diorama of passenger pigeons, egg, and nest, at the New Jersey State Museum

For many years, the passenger pigeon has been presumed to have been equally abundant in prehistory, although the species has not been studied in depth by archaeologists or paleontologists. In recent years, however, some  have argued that passenger pigeon was not nearly as abundant in prehistory as previously believed. These questions are not new. In 1935, Margaret Mitchell wrote:

It is fascinating to speculate on the origin and history of such a wide spread and extravagantly numerous species—when were they at their maximum and how many years did it take them to attain it? Had the Indians known them in greater numbers than existed on the arrival of the white man?

You can read about how passenger pigeons fit into the diet of prehistoric Native Americans at the Lamoka Lake site in Deer, Passenger Pigeons, and Hunter-Gatherers. Truly understanding the passenger pigeon, its history, community ecology, and its ultimately tragic interactions with humans, requires analysis of the archaeological and paleontological record of passenger pigeons. It seems wise to review the archaeological and paleontological record of passenger pigeons to determine whether the alleged scarcity of passenger pigeons in prehistory is supported by zooarchaeological evidence. This research is underway now.

Passenger Pigeon Coracoid
Passenger Pigeon coracoid from the Lamoka Lake site

A Sampler of Archaeological Sites:

New York

New Jersey

West Virginia

Paleontology: Pliocene

Book Review:  The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller


Mitchell, Margaret H., 1935.  The Passenger Pigeon in Ontario. Contributions of the Royal Ontario Museum of Zoology ; no. 7. pp. 14-15.

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