A passenger pigeon drawn by Alexander Wilson and engraved by W.H. Lizars. It was published in the 1832 edition of American Ornithology. Lizars is noted as the engraver of the first of Audubon's elephant folio engravings including his famous "Turkey." Photo by: Courtesy photo
June 9, 2018 10:00:30 PM
Greenpeace once sold a T-shirt with a picture of a dinosaur and the caption "Extinct means forever." That phrase well applies to some beautiful birds that once graced our skies.
The passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet are both extinct, and the ivory-billed woodpecker is either extinct or reduced to only a very few living unseen in the deepest swamps of Mississippi and Louisiana.
One of the most beautiful but also destructive birds of the Southeast and mid Mississippi Valley was the Carolina parakeet. It was described by A.A. Gould in 1853 as: "This bird is thirteen inches long; the forehead and cheeks are orange red; down and round the neck a rich and pure yellow; the shoulders and bend of the wings also edged with rich orange red. The general color of the rest of the plumage is a bright yellowish silky green, with light blue reflections."
The parakeet's range was principally along coastal Virginia and Carolina and down into Florida. There was a sub-species in the Mississippi River Valley that also ranged through the Black Prairie that some described as a little more blue than green.
The parakeets flew in large flocks and decimated the fruit crops of early settlers in the Southeast. Farmers killed them by the hundreds at a time. But their beautiful plumage was popular with Victorian fashions and they became popular as pets.
All of that, combined with a loss of habitat, led to their eventual extinction. John Audubon encountered Carolina parakeets on December 2, 1820, after landing at a Mississippi River town called Memphis, where he found "the woods Literally filled with Parokeets."
Writing about the parakeets around 1835, Audubon commented: "Our Parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number...I should think that along the Mississippi there is not now half the number that existed fifteen years ago."
He also wrote that "Cockle-bur" were one of their favorite foods. As to cockle-burs Audubon also said: "To this day, no useful property has been discovered in the Cockle-bur, although in time it may prove as valuable ... as many other plants that had long been considered of no importance." In 1955 Georges de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, proved Audubon right when, after studying how cockle-burs worked in sticking to clothes, he invented and patented Velcro.
The last known Carolina parakeet died in a zoo in 1918, though there are occasional reports of wild sightings in isolated swamps into the 1930s.
The passenger pigeon was an American bird once so numerous that the passing overhead of a flock of them was said to blacken the sky for hours or even, by a few accounts, for days. "Pigeon Roost Creek" on the Natchez Trace near Mathiston is a reminder of the millions of migrating passenger pigeons that once roosted in trees in this area. In the 1820s their numbers were estimated at between 3 and 5 billion and John Audubon described the sound of an approaching flock of pigeons as "the sound of distant thunder."
The wild pigeon roosts were a gathering place for Native American hunters during the roosting season when the huge flocks were present. The bird eggs were specially mentioned by the Indians as a popular food. Gideon Lincecum traveling across Alabama in 1818 wrote: "The entire forest was alive with wild pigeons but nobody troubled them." To the Indians and early settlers, passenger pigeons were a source of food but not the subject of senseless slaughter.
Because millions of birds would roost in a single location, surrounding crops and forests were decimated. Audubon observed the damage done to a forest that had served as a roost. "Many trees ... were broken off at no great distance from the ground, and the branches of many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if the forest had been swept by a tornado."
That destruction in roosting areas and of crops resulted in a continuous senseless slaughter, a destruction of habitat and a disruption of the birds roosting. By the 1870s, articles began appearing about the quickly diminishing size of the passing flocks. By the 1890s they were rare, and by 1900 wild passenger pigeons were no more. In a period of less than 75 years, passenger pigeons had gone from a population of billions to extinction.
The last wild passenger pigeon was said to have been shot and killed on April 2, 1902, and the last known living one died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
The rapid passing of the birds that were once also known as the wild American pigeon is one of the more disturbing stories of American natural history. It is a story, that as evidenced by Pigeon Roost near Mathiston, is as much a local story as a national one.
The ivory-billed woodpecker has such an interesting story, which continues with possible sightings, that it will stand alone as a future column.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.