irregular and uncertain intervals

Their appearance and disappearance is at very irregular and uncertain intervals

James E. DeKay on the “wild pigeon” in Zoology of New-York, or the New-York fauna; comprising detailed descriptions of all the animals hitherto observed within the state of new-york, with brief notices of those occasionally found near its borders, and accompanied by appropriate illustrations. Part II Birds. Carroll and Cook, Albany, NY. 1844, p. 197.

Stupendous! The ROM is bringing its Passenger Pigeons out of Storage

New research question: Is it possible to write an article about passenger pigeons without using the adjective “stupendous”? This article in The Star uses it, while talking about the Royal Ontario Museum’s plan to put some of their 153 stuffed Ectopistes back on display, as well as how the DNA from one of their birds is being used in an ambitious plan to recreate the passenger pigeon.

ROM curator Mark Peck with specimens from the museum’s collection of extinct passenger pigeons. Source: Keith Beaty / Toronto Star.

Shooting “doves” in Florida, A.D. 1565

An earlier record of Europeans shooting passenger pigeons (“doves”) that Joel Greenberg found but was not able to get into his book:

A second voyage left France in 1564 under the command of Rene Laudonniere. At the mouth of the St. Johns River where Jacksonville now stands, he founded Fort Caroline on June 22. It, too, would fail, as the Spanish, aware of France’s intentions, sent a fleet about a year later to slaughter or imprison most of the inhabitants and destroy the structures. Laudonneire managed to escape, however, and wrote of his experiences. Sometime between January 25, 1565 and May 1565, there occurred the earliest instance of Europeans killing passenger pigeons that I know of:

“In the meantime, a great flock of doves came to us, unexpectedly and for a period of about seven weeks, so that every day we shot more than two hundred of them in the woods around our fort.” ( Rene Laudonniere, Three Voyages (translated, edited, and annotated by Charles E. Bennett), Gainesville: The University Presses of Florida (1975): 114.

The exact location of Fort Caroline has never been identified, although at least one archaeological attempt to find it is underway. Recently, some people have even claimed, apparently without showing much evidence, that it was actually in Georgia.

Where Could You Buy a Passenger Pigeon in 1908?

Source: New York State Museum Bulletin 121.
Source: New York State Museum Bulletin 121.

In 1908 the New York State Museum purchased a passenger pigeon from Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, NY (NYSM 1908:134). The late date of this acquisition is interesting. By this time, the species was considered extinct in the wild.  Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, of course, died in captivity in 1914. The latest confirmed killing of a passenger pigeon that Schorger (1955) was aware of occurred in 1900 in Ohio. Greenberg (2014) has since identified two more recent records: a passenger pigeon killed in Illinois in 1901 that survives as a taxidermic mount at Millikin University, and a pigeon killed in Indiana in 1902. That specimen has not survived.

 There were, however, unconfirmed sightings of passenger pigeons in the wild. Most, if not all of these, were likely misidentifications of the smaller mourning dove. Schorger has pointed out how even experienced observers could make such a mistake.

 The latest confirmed kill of a passenger pigeon in New York was in 1899. Yet a passenger pigeon nest was reported from Monroe County, New York, in 1904 and in 1907 Edmund Niles Huyck saw a live pigeon in Albany County and naturalist John Burroughs recorded sightings of flocks of pigeons in the Hudson Valley (Greenberg 2014; Steadman 1996).

 Is it possible that a collector working for Ward’s killed a wild passenger pigeon that was then sold to the Museum? Perhaps, although Ward’s Natural Science was a major supplier of passenger pigeons and all sorts of animals to museums and other institutions. It seems more likely that the State Museum bought a specimen prepared by Ward’s years earlier that had been sitting unsold in a warehouse.  In fact, another source, Frank H. Ward himself, tells us that the company obtained their passenger pigeons the same way many other people did: by buying them in public markets in the 1880s. At the time of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, in 1914, Ward’s still had eight skeletons in stock (Pitelka and Bryant 1942).

 The New York State Museum has several passenger pigeons in their collections — ten mounted skins according to David Steadman, the former curator of birds there. An earlier report listed five mounted specimens and two study skins at the museum, of which only one, a mounted specimen collected in 1895 from Orleans County, New York, had reliable provenience (Stoner 1940).

 The pigeon from Ward’s, whether a stuffed taxidermic mount or a mounted skeleton, is presumably still at the NYSM. Their products would have had a label with the name of the company, but this would not be considered provenience data, as it would not have the date and location the bird was actually obtained. A search of the museum’s archives and an examination of the bird itself might produce more information.  The University of Rochester curates the archives of the Ward’s company (link), but a fire in 1930 destroyed many of the earlier records, so it may not possible to ever determine if this bird was truly one of the last wild passenger pigeons.


 Greenberg, Joel

2014    A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Bloomsbury USA.

 New York State Museum

1908    Fourth Report of the Director of the Science Division including the 61st Report of the State Museum, the 27th Report of the State Geologist, and the Report of the State Paleontologist for 1907. New York State Museum Bulletin 121. Albany.

 Pitelka, Frank A., and Monroe D. Bryant

1942    Available skeletons of the passenger pigeon. The Condor 44:74-75.

 Schorger, A.W.

1955    The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction.

 Steadman, David W.

1996    …And live on pigeon pie: the passenger pigeon finally expired at the Victorian dining table. New York State Conservationist. April, pp. 21-23.

 Stoner, Dayton

1940    Unreported New York State specimens of passenger pigeon. The Auk 57:415-416.