September 1, 2014, marked the centenary of the extinction of a species that was once plentiful in the Québec sky. In 1914, with the death of a 29-year-old female at the Cincinnati Zoo, the passenger pigeon disappeared definitively from the world’s avian heritage.
The passenger pigeon in Canada
Unfortunately, little is known about the biology of this bird related to turtle doves, doves and pigeons. Contrary to what you might think, hatchling productivity was low, since a female laid a single egg per year. The pigeons fed primarily on acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts. They would colonize an area that closely corresponded to that of the American beech. Its overall population was estimated at over five billion individuals.
Passenger pigeons nested in colonies whose area could be measured in square kilometers. When naturalists described the sites they would mention that it was hard to find a branch that was not covered. And as a result, the pigeons traveled in gigantic groups, which was a considerable advantage in terms of protecting themselves from their natural predators more effectively. In seasonal movements that involved a short migration, the gatherings were spectacular. Writings from back then described these movements as swarms that darkened the sky and that could stretch over five kilometers.
For a long time, Native peoples appreciated the meat from this bird and hunted it as small game. The resource seemed inexhaustible, but when Western colonists began to hunt with firearms and on a commercial scale, the situation took a tragic turn. Hunts involving miraculous numbers of birds, upwards of 30,000 birds taken by a single hunter, were recorded. A great number of young pigeons were also snatched from nests, which did great damage to the species’ reproductive success.
The tragic end
It took only 50 years of commercial hunting to seal the fate of the passenger pigeon. By the 1880s, the population was already commercially exhausted. At the start of the 1900s, 120 pigeons were recorded in captivity, but the conditions in which the birds were kept never allowed for their breeding. The last observation of a passenger pigeon in the wild in Canada dates from 1902.
The heritage of that disappearance
At the time there was no way of measuring the state of the population, any more than there was to preserve the habitat and exploit the resource in a sustainable way. In 1916, shortly after the disappearance of the passenger pigeon, the signing of a Canada–U.S. treaty prohibited the commercial exploitation of birds in the wild. That measure led to the restoration of the populations of a number of species of duck, heron, tern and shorebirds. And even if the law on migratory birds is still in effect today, it’s important that we continue our efforts at protecting the territory and habitat diversity if we’re to ensure the conservation of our avian heritage.