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A migration spectacle like no other

We are now in the middle of spring migration. Sometimes we see huge flocks of birds on the move. However, I was reminded this week of what we might have seen in the mid-1800s. We know there were huge numbers of passenger pigeons, but can you picture a billion of them passing over Ohio, over your home?
I pulled out some of the early Ohio bird books to try to recreate the scene. William Dawson, in his 1903 "The Birds of Ohio," was writing at a time when the pigeons had only recently disappeared. He writes:
“During their passage the sun was darkened, and the moon refused to give her light. The beating of their wings was like the voice of thunder and their steady on-coming like the continuous roar of Niagara. Where they roosted, great branches and even trees 2 feet in diameter were broken down, and where they nested, a hundred square miles of timber groaned with the weight of their nests.”
Ohio was near the center of their abundance, as was Kentucky and Michigan. In Kentucky passenger pigeons bred and wintered in huge numbers. Well-known ornithologist Alexander Wilson once computed a single flight at upward of 2 billion birds!
With such numbers it was unthinkable that the population could be diminished, even by commercial hunting. The slaughter was unimaginable. Dawson’s grandfather stated that he once killed 59 pigeons with one shot. Near Petoskey, Michigan in 1878, the nesting area covered at least 100,000 acres, and passenger pigeons were harvested by many means and shipped by land and across Lake Michigan. Estimates are that 1 billion pigeons were killed in one season (Dawson).
This was about the time passenger pigeon numbers plummeted, and it wasn’t long before they all were gone. Supposedly the last-known wild bird in Ohio was shot by a young boy near the Pike-Scioto County line on March 24, 1900. Harry Oberholser’s book, “When the Passenger Pigeons Flew in the Killbuck Valley,” notes that while the birds had been numerous in the past, by 1873 only single pairs were found breeding in the vicinity of Orrville. The latest local sightings were in 1888 and 1893, and both were of single birds.
Richard Phillips is the author of "Birds of Hancock County, Ohio Area." He recounts that while removing wallpaper from a room in their old house, they had to remove 11 layers, and the last layer included sheets from the "Evening Jeffersonian," dated 1887.
A story in the paper noted that market hunters were staying in the local hotel. They would drive their farm wagons each day to a huge pigeon roost near the town of Ada and collect pigeons all day, returning to Findlay in the evening to pack the birds in barrels of ice and ship them to Chicago by rail. The prevailing price was thought to be 25 cents per dozen.
This chapter of ornithological history makes me profoundly sad. And in this present time when efforts are being made to turn back progress on preserving birds, land and even the earth itself, the feeling of sadness can get out of hand. The passenger pigeon story is all too real. For me this means trying to do something positive each day, finding things to do and say that might help to preserve our wonderful natural world.
Good birding!
Reach Bruce Glick at birderbruce@yahoo.com or 330-317-7798.

Published: April 13, 2018
New Article ID: 2018180419961