Once upon a time, Ohio was witness to one of the worlds most amazing displays of wildlife migration: passenger pigeons flying each spring and fall in flocks so large that their numbers darkened the daytime sky for hours at a time. When they descended to roost, the weight of these massive flocks was said to occasionally break branches or topple trees.
In 1813, renowned ornithologist John Audubon recorded his own astonishment, almost disbelief, as he observed this migratory phenomenon for himself while traveling along the Ohio River.
I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact, said Audubon. He went on to say that for three days the flocks of passenger pigeons flew overhead in undiminished numbers.
Sadly, those days are long past, and passenger pigeons once counted by the millions perhaps billions across Ohio skies have been extinct for nearly a century. Sadder still, Ohio was where this once-abundant species met its end, as home to the last wild passenger pigeon and to the last of its kind in captivity.
Built for speed and endurance in flight, the aerodynamic passenger pigeon was known to flash across the sky at 60-70 mph. With a rose-to-rust colored breast, their long slender wings were bluish, and the pointed eight-to-nine inch tail was white and gray.
Feeding mainly on acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts, passenger pigeons nested in the extensive woodlands of the New World, thriving in what is now eastern United States, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. In the era before Europeans settled the continent, it is estimated that the species numbered more than five or six billion an astounding 40 percent of all the birds in North America.
Today, its difficult to imagine one species being that numerous. Harder yet to imagine is its vulnerability to extinction. This awe-inspiring bird, however, needed vast tracts of forested land in which to forage and reproduce, and those needs were at odds with the demands of a young, developing nation.
During the mid-1800s, passenger pigeon numbers were dramatically reduced in Ohio and elsewhere in North America as forests were cleared for farming and large-scale commercial harvesting of the birds was left unregulated.
Experts believe that passenger pigeon numbers eventually dwindled beyond a population threshold from which they could not recover. Because it was a species dependent upon immense numbers, all attempts to breed the birds in captivity failed.
On March 24, 1900 on a farm in Pike County, Ohio, a young man unknowingly shot what would be the last passenger pigeon in the wild. Today, the bird (called Buttons because buttons have replaced its eyes) is perched on display at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus.
There is also an Ohio connection to the worlds last surviving passenger pigeon, which died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. Martha (named for Martha Washington) was 29 years old. Her remains were donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The lifestyle of the passenger pigeon (and the similarly extinct Carolina parakeet) lost its conflict with Americas booming population. Today, knowledge gained from the passenger pigeons demise is being used to protect and promote present-day wildlife and their habitats in the Buckeye State.
Through the states income tax check-off programs, Ohioans are helping protect and restore endangered species such as the bald eagle, trumpeter swan, peregrine falcon, osprey and Karner blue butterfly. Wetlands, tall-grass prairies and other habitats critical for plant and animal species are being purchased and restored.
Natural resource agencies and conservation organizations in Ohio are working diligently to enhance habitats, prevent the decline of wildlife species and helping others to become reestablished.
Though the passenger pigeon will never again darken Ohios skies, its legendary numbers continue to amaze and inspire protection of our natural resources.