Passenger Pigeons: “Feathered Tempest” of Centuries Past

Specimen of passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, an extinct bird once extremely common in eastern North America

At one time the most abundant bird species in all of North America, and perhaps the world, the passenger pigeon was hunted to extinction over the course of a few decades. The species once numbered in the billions. Yet on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo, the last living specimen died. The passing of Martha the passenger pigeon, and the extinction of her species, helped inspire our modern ethic of conservation. Martha’s remains, now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in the nation’s capital, became a sort of organic monument.

In the mid-1800s, it was a common occurrence in parts of the eastern United States to witness flocks of Ectopistes migratorius so thick that they would blot out the sun. In 1871 the passenger pigeons’ vast communal nesting grounds in Wisconsin were estimated to cover 850 square miles. Roosting flocks took over entire forests, leaving them barren of nuts and acorns, breaking branches under their weight, and coating the ground an inch thick with their feces. Naturalist Aldo Leopold called passenger pigeon flocks a “feathered tempest.”

Thanks to the spread of the railroad and the telegraph, a commercial hunting industry grew up targeting the passenger pigeon. The birds were shot, trapped, torched, poisoned. Shipped in railcars by the tons, they were a source of cheap protein, with mattress feathers as a byproduct for the plucking. Their very abundance contributed to the fallacy that no amount of exploitation could threaten a creature so numerous.

Now, a century since the flight of the last passenger pigeon, an organization called Revive and Restore is investigating the possibility of using genetics to bring the bird back. For the bird whose extinction helped birth the modern conservation movement, “de-extinction” is the goal.

Image credit: © Courtesy of U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Related Links

  • Why the Passenger Pigeon Went Extinct
    This article tells the story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, comparing public apathy then toward the disappearance of the bird species to skepticism today toward climate change.
    (Source: Audubon Magazine, May–June 2014)
  • Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America
    This webpage introduces the current exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, that focuses on the fate of the passenger pigeon; includes some virtual resources.
    (Source: Smithsonian Institute; accessed September 3, 2014)
  • The Plan to Bring the Iconic Passenger Pigeon Back from Extinction
    It’s not quite Jurassic Park, but plans are afoot for the “de-extinction” of the passenger pigeon.
    (Source: Wired, March 15, 2013)
  • Martha (Pigeon)
    Yes, Martha, she has her own Wikipedia page: the last-known living passenger pigeon, who died 100 years ago at the age of about 30 at the Cincinnati Zoo.
    (Source: Wikipedia; accessed September 3, 2014)
  • 360 Degree View of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon
    This webpage displays an interactive 360-degree (albeit 2D) image of the fabled Martha.
    (Source: Smithsonian Institute; accessed September 3, 2014)


  1. Alyssa says:

    This birdy is so pretty its ashame its extinct!!!

    • Long says:

      Hi Donna,I visited your blog. Loved the wrerits’ quotes and the story of the old man and his box. You have a very nice and attractive blog. I need to learn to add photos to mine. I tried to leave a comment, but my openID was not accepted. Tried several times. Sorry. Anyway, that led me to your site, which is also very nice.Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. I’m starting a writing challenge in my blog post tomorrow you might be interested.Good luck with GUTAA. Did you make it in to the first level of judging? Mine is the memoir of a car accident and PTSD (and yes, I’m very happy now, thanks for asking) I hope you made it in, and wish you luck!Jane Ann

  2. ANIRUDDH says:


  3. sarah says:

    thats so sad

  4. devoni says:

    this is cool.

  5. Bobby says:

    More than one month ago was the 100th anniversary of the death of the passenger pigeon. We will remember you!

  6. topanga says:

    Bring back the pigeons!

  7. Squiliam Fancyson says:

    I hate pigeons

  8. Kari says:

    we can be so stupid sometimes killing animals like this! there are so many animals that we killed and now we can’t ever see them again, and this is just one of them. 🙁

  9. Aden says:

    I feel angry that people can be so blind to the facts when a creater goes extinct. Not everyone feels so bad about specific species though, if lice were to go extinct I would be out on the streets celibrating…

  10. Aden says:


  11. Meredith says:

    I can’t believe humans do this, it’s really sad. I also feel angry, how can humans be so clueless! Now is kind of different, but, what if a bigger species was doing this to humans?