Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE PASSENGER PIGEON.
[Passenger Pigeon. EXTINCT.]
ECTOPISTES MIGRATORIA, Linn.
PLATE CCLXXXV.--MALE AND FEMALE.
The Passenger Pigeon, or, as it is usually named in America, the Wild
Pigeon, moves with extreme rapidity, propelling itself by quickly repeated flaps
of the wings, which it brings more or less near to the body, according to the
degree of velocity which is required. Like the Domestic Pigeon, it often flies,
during the love season, in a circling manner, supporting itself with both wings
angularly elevated, in which position it keeps them until it is about to alight.
Now and then, during these circular flights, the tips of the primary quills of
each wing are made to strike against each other, producing a smart rap, which
may be heard at a distance of thirty or forty yards. Before alighting, the Wild
Pigeon, like the Carolina Parrot and a few other species of birds, breaks the
force of its flight by repeated flappings, as if apprehensive of receiving
injury from coming too suddenly into contact with the branch or the spot of
ground on which it intends to settle.
I have commenced my description of this species with the above account of
its flight, because the most important facts connected with its habits relate to
its migrations. These are entirely owing to the necessity of procuring food,
and are not performed with the view of escaping the severity of a northern
latitude, or of seeking a southern one for the purpose of breeding. They
consequently do not take place at any fixed period or season of the year.
Indeed, it sometimes happens that a continuance of a sufficient supply of food
in one district will keep these birds absent from another for years. I know,
at least, to a certainty, that in Kentucky they remained for several years
constantly, and were nowhere else to be found. They all suddenly disappeared
one season when the mast was exhausted, and did not return for a long period.
Similar facts have been observed in other States.
Their great power of flight enables them to survey and pass over an
astonishing extent of country in a very short time. This is proved by facts
well known. Thus, Pigeons have been killed in the neighbourhood of New York,
with their crops full of rice, which they must have collected in the fields of
Georgia and Carolina, these districts being the nearest in which they could
possibly have procured a supply of that kind of food. As their power of
digestion is so great that they will decompose food entirely in twelve hours,
they must in this case have travelled between three and four hundred miles in
six hours, which shews their speed to be at an average of about one mile in a
minute. A velocity such as this would enable one of these birds, were it so
inclined, to visit the European continent in less than three days.
This great power of flight is seconded by as great a power of vision, which
discover their food with facility, and thus attain the object for which their
journey has been undertaken. This I have also proved to be the case, by having
observed them, when passing over a sterile part of the country, or one scantily
furnished with food suited to them, keep high in the air, flying with an
extended front, so as to enable them to survey hundreds of acres at once. On
the contrary, when the land is richly covered with food, or the trees abundantly
hung with mast, they fly low, in order to discover the part most plentifully
Their body is of an elongated oval form, steered by a long well-plumed
tail, and propelled by well-set wings, the muscles of which are very large and
powerful for the size of the bird. When an individual is seen gliding through
the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought, and on trying to
see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone.
The multitudes of Wild Pigeons in our woods are astonishing. Indeed, after
having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel
inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact.
Yet I have seen it all, and that too in the company of persons who, like myself,
were struck with amazement.
In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the
Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond
Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in
greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an
inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in
one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my
pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the
task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless
multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been
made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I
proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was
obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of
snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to
Whilst waiting for dinner at YOUNG'S inn at the confluence of Salt river
with the Ohio, I saw, at my leisure, immense legions still going by, with a
front reaching far beyond the Ohio on the west, and the beech-wood forests
directly on the east of me. Not a single bird alighted; for not a nut or acorn
was that year to be seen in the neighbourhood. They consequently flew so high,
that different trials to reach them with a capital rifle proved ineffectual; nor
did the reports disturb them in the least. I cannot describe to you the extreme
beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a Hawk chanced to press upon the rear of
a flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed
into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the centre. In these
almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines,
descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted
perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen
wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the
coils of a gigantic serpent.
Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five
miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to
do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of
the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims,
which there flew lower as they passed the river. Multitudes were thus
destroyed. For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that
of Pigeons, and talked of nothing but Pigeons.
It is extremely interesting to see flock after flock performing exactly the
same evolutions which had been traced as it were in the air by a preceding
flock. Thus, should a Hawk have charged on a group at a certain spot, the
angles, curves, and undulations that have been described by the birds, in their
efforts to escape from the dreaded talons of the plunderer, are undeviatingly
followed by the next group that comes up. Should the bystander happen to
witness one of these affrays, and, struck with the rapidity and elegance of the
motions exhibited, feel desirous of seeing them repeated, his wishes will be
gratified if he only remain in the place until the next group comes up.
As soon as the Pigeons discover a sufficiency of food to entice them to
alight, they fly around in circles, reviewing the country below. During their
evolutions, on such occasions, the dense mass which they form exhibits a
beautiful appearance, as it changes its direction, now displaying a glistening
sheet of azure, when the backs of the birds come simultaneously into view, and
anon, suddenly presenting a mass of rich deep purple. They then pass lower,
over the woods, and for a moment are lost among the foliage, but again emerge,
and are seen gliding aloft. They now alight, but the next moment, as if
suddenly alarmed, they take to wing, producing by the flappings of their wing a
noise like the roar of distant thunder, and sweep through the forests to see if
danger is near. Hunger, however, soon brings them to the ground. When
alighted, they are seen industriously throwing up the withered leaves in quest
of the fallen mast. The rear ranks are continually rising, passing over the
main-body, and alighting in front, in such rapid succession, that the whole
flock seems still on wing. The quantity of ground thus swept is astonishing,
and so completely has it been cleared, that the gleaner who might follow in
their rear would find his labour completely lost. Whilst feeding, their avidity
is at times so great that in attempting to swallow a large acorn or nut, they
are seen gasping for a long while, as if in the agonies of suffocation.
On such occasions, when the woods are filled with these Pigeons, they are
killed in immense numbers, although no apparent diminution ensues. About the
middle of the day, after their repast is finished, they settle on the trees, to
enjoy rest, and digest their food. On the ground they walk with ease, as well
as on the branches, frequently jerking their beautiful tail, and moving the neck
backwards and forwards in the most graceful manner. As the sun begins to sink
beneath the horizon, they depart en masse for the roosting-place, which not
unfrequently is hundreds of miles distant, as has been ascertained by persons
who have kept an account of their arrivals and departures.
Let us now, kind reader, inspect their place of nightly rendezvous. One of
these curious roosting-places, on the banks of the Green river in Kentucky, I
repeatedly visited. It was, as is always the case, in a portion of the forest
where the trees were of great magnitude, and where there was little under-wood.
I rode through it upwards of forty miles, and, crossing it in different parts,
found its average breadth to be rather more than three miles. My first view of
it was about a fortnight subsequent to the period when they had made choice of
it, and I arrived there nearly two hours before sunset. Few Pigeons were then
to be seen, but a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and
ammunition, had already established encampments on the borders. Two farmers
from the vicinity of Russelsville, distant more than a hundred miles, had driven
upwards of three hundred hogs to be fattened on the pigeons which were to be
slaughtered. Here and there, the people employed in plucking and salting what
had already been procured, were seen sitting in the midst of large piles of
these birds. The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the
roosting-place. Many trees two feet in diameter, I observed, 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. Every
thing proved to me that the number of birds resorting to this part of the forest
must be immense beyond conception. As the period of their arrival approached,
their foes anxiously prepared to receive them. Some were furnished with
iron-pots containing sulphur, others with torches of pine-knots, many with
poles, and the rest with guns. The sun was lost to our view, yet not a Pigeon
had arrived. Every thing was ready, and all eyes were gazing on the clear sky,
which appeared in glimpses amidst the tall trees. Suddenly there burst forth a
general cry of "Here they come!" The noise which they made, though yet distant,
reminded me of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed
vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that
surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds
continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent, as well as
wonderful and almost terrifying, sight presented itself. The Pigeons, arriving
by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses were
formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the
weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds
beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It
was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even
to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns
were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the
No one dared venture within the line of devastation. The hogs had been
penned up in due time, the picking up of the dead and wounded being left for the
next morning's employment. The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past
midnight before I perceived a decrease in the number of those that arrived. The
uproar continued the whole night; and as I was anxious to know to what distance
the sound reached, I sent off a man, accustomed to perambulate the forest, who,
returning two hours afterwards, informed me he had heard it distinctly when
three miles distant from the spot. Towards the approach of day, the noise in
some measure subsided: long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons
began to move off in a direction quite different from that in which they had
arrived the evening before, and at sunrise all that were able to fly had
disappeared. The howlings of the wolves now reached our ears, and the foxes,
lynxes, cougars, bears, racoons, opossums and pole-cats were seen sneaking off,
whilst eagles and hawks of different species, accompanied by a crowd of
vultures, came to supplant them, and enjoy their share of the spoil.
It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry
amongst the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The Pigeons were picked up and
piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the
hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.
Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such
dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied
myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our
forests can accomplish their decrease, as they not unfrequently quadruple their
numbers yearly, and always at least double it. In 1805 I saw schooners loaded
in bulk with Pigeons caught up the Hudson river, coming in to the wharf at New
York, when the birds sold for a cent a piece. I knew a man in Pennsylvania, who
caught and killed upwards of 500 dozens in a clap-net in one day, sweeping
sometimes twenty dozens or more at a single haul. In the month of March 1830,
they were so abundant in the markets of New York, that piles of them met the eye
in every direction. I have seen the Negroes at the United States' Salines or
Saltworks of Shawanee Town, wearied with killing Pigeons, as they alighted to
drink the water issuing from the leading pipes, for weeks at a time; and yet in
1826, in Louisiana, I saw congregated flocks of these birds as numerous as ever
I had seen them before, during a residence of nearly thirty years in the United
The breeding of the Wild Pigeons, and the places chosen for that purpose,
are points of great interest. The time is not much influenced by season, and
the place selected is where food is most plentiful and most attainable, and
always at a convenient distance from water. Forest-trees of great height are
those in which the Pigeons form their nests. Thither the countless myriads
resort, and prepare to fulfil one of the great laws of nature. At this period
the note of the Pigeon is a soft coo-coo-coo-coo, much shorter than that of the
domestic species. The common notes resemble the monosyllables kee-kee-kee-kee,
the first being the loudest, the others gradually diminishing in power. The
male assumes a pompous demeanour, and follows the female, whether on the ground
or on the branches, with spread tail and drooping wings, which it rubs against
the part over which it is moving. The body is elevated, the throat swells, the
eyes sparkle. He continues his notes, and now and then rises on the wing, and
flies a few yards to approach the fugitive and timorous female. Like the
domestic Pigeon and other species, they caress each other by billing, in which
action, the bill of the one is introduced transversely into that of the other,
and both parties alternately disgorge the contents of their crop by repeated
efforts. These preliminary affairs are soon settled, and the Pigeons commence
their nests in general peace and harmony. They are composed of a few dry twigs,
crossing each other, and are supported by forks of the branches. On the same
tree from fifty to a hundred nests may frequently be seen:--I might say a much
greater number, were I not anxious, kind reader, that however wonderful my
account of the Wild Pigeon is, you may not feel disposed to refer it to the
marvellous. The eggs are two in number, of a broadly elliptical form, and pure
white. During incubation, the male supplies the female with food. Indeed, the
tenderness and affection displayed by these birds towards their mates, are in
the highest degree striking. It is a remarkable fact, that each brood generally
consists of a male and a female.
Here again, the tyrant of the creation, man, interferes, disturbing the
harmony of this peaceful scene. As the young birds grow up, their enemies,
armed with axes, reach the spot, to seize and destroy all they can. The trees
are felled, and made to fall in such a way that the cutting of one causes the
overthrow of another, or shakes the neighbouring trees so much, that the young
Pigeons, or squabs, as they are named, are violently hurried to the ground. In
this manner also, immense quantities are destroyed.
The young are fed by the parents in the manner described above; in other
words, the old bird introduces its bill into the mouth of the young one in a
transverse manner, or with the back of each mandible opposite the separations of
the mandibles of the young bird, and disgorges the contents of its crop. As
soon as the young birds are able to shift for themselves, they leave their
parents, and continue separate until they attain maturity. By the end of six
months they are capable of reproducing their species.
The flesh of the Wild Pigeon is of a dark colour, but affords tolerable
eating. That of young birds from the nest is much esteemed. The skin is
covered with small white filmy scales. The feathers fall off at the least
touch, as has been remarked to be the case in the Carolina Turtle-dove. I have
only to add, that this species, like others of the same genus, immerses its head
up to the eyes while drinking.
In March 1830, I bought about 350 of these birds in the market of New York,
at four cents a piece. Most of these I carried alive to England, and
distributed them amongst several noblemen, presenting some at the Same time to
the Zoological Society.
This celebrated bird is mentioned by Dr. RICHARDSON as "annually reaching
the 62nd degree of latitude, in the warm central districts of the Fur Countries,
and attaining the 58th parallel on the coast of Hudson's Bay in very fine
summers only. Mr. HUTCHINS mentions a flock which visited York Factory and
remained there two days, in 1775, as a very remarkable occurrence. A few hordes
of Indians that frequent the low flooded tracts at the south end of Lake
Winnipeg, subsist principally on the Pigeons, during a part of the summer, when
the sturgeon-fishery is unproductive, and the Zizania aquatica has not yet
ripened; but farther north, these birds are too few in number to furnish a
material article of diet." Mr. TOWNSEND states that this species is found on
the Rocky Mountains, but not on the Columbia river, where the Band-tailed
Pigeon, Columba fasciata of Say, is abundant. Whilst in the Texas, I was
assured that the Passenger Pigeon was plentiful there, although at irregular
intervals. In the neighbourhood of Boston it arrives, as Dr. T. M. BREWER
informs me, in small scattered flocks, much less numerous than in the interior
of that State.
My friend Dr. BACHMAN says, in a note sent to me, "In the more cultivated
parts of the United States, these birds now no longer breed in communities. I
have secured many nests scattered throughout the woods, seldom near each other.
Four years ago, I saw several on the mountains east of Lansinburgh, in the State
of New York. They were built close to the stems of thin but tall pine trees
(Pinus strobus), and were composed of a few sticks; the eggs invariably two, and
white. There is frequently but one young bird in the nest, probably from the
loose manner in which it has been constructed, so that either a young bird or an
egg drops out. Indeed, I have found both at the foot of the tree. This is no
doubt accidental, and not to be attributed to a habit which the bird may be
supposed to have of throwing out an egg or one of its young. I have frequently
taken two of the latter from the same nest and reared them. The Wild Pigeons
appear in Carolina during winter at irregular periods, sometimes in cold, but
often in warm weather, driven here no doubt, as you have mentioned, not by the
cold, but by a failure of mast in the western forests." A curious change of
habits has taken place in England in those Pigeons which I presented to the Earl
of DERBY in 1830, that nobleman having assured me that ever since they began
breeding in his aviaries, they have laid only one egg. My noble friend has
raised a great number of these birds, and has distributed them freely. It is
not therefore very surprising that some which have escaped from confinement have
been shot; but that this species should naturally have a claim to be admitted
into the British Fauna appears to me very doubtful. The eggs measure one inch
five-eighths in length, one inch one-eighth and a half in breadth, and are
nearly equally rounded at both ends.
COLUMBA MIGRATORIA, Linn. Syst. Nat., vol. i. p. 285.
PASSENGER PIGEON, Columba migratoria, Wils. Amer. Orn.,
vol. i. p. 102.
COLUMBA MIGRATORIA, Bonap. Syn., p. 120.
COLUMBA (ECTOPISTES) MIGRATORIA, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,
vol. ii.p. 363.
PASSENGER PIGEON, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 629.
PASSENGER PIGEON, Columba migratoria, Aud. Orn. Biog.,
vol. i. p. 319;vol. v. p. 551.
Male, 16 1/4, 25. Female, 15, 23.
Wanders continually in search of food throughout all parts of North
America. Wonderfully abundant at times in particular districts.
Bill straight, of ordinary length, rather slender, broader than deep at the
hase, with a tumid fleshy covering above, compressed towards the end, rather
obtuse; upper mandible slightly declinate at the tip; edges inflected. Head
small, neck slender, body rather full. Legs short and strong; tarsus rather
rounded., anteriorly scutellate; toes slightly webbed at the base; claws short,
depressed, obtuse. Plumage blended on the neck and under parts, compact on the
back. Wings long, the second quill longest. Tail graduated, of twelve tapering
feathers. Bill black. Iris bright red. Feet carmine purple, claws brackish.
Head above and on the sides light blue. Throat, fore-neck, breast, and sides,
light brownish-red, the rest of the under parts white. Lower part of the neck
behind, and along the sides, changing to gold, emerald-green, and rich crimson.
The general colour of the upper parts is greyish-blue, some of the wing-coverts
marked with a black spot. Quills and larger wing-coverts blackish, the primary
quills bluish on the outer web, the larger coverts whitish at the tip. The two
middle feathers of the tail black, the rest pale blue at the base, becoming
white towards the end.
The colours of the female are much duller than those of the male, although
their distribution is the same. The breast is light greyish-brown, the upper
parts pale reddish-brown, tinged with blue. The changeable spot on the neck is
of less extent, and the eye of a somewhat duller red, as are the feet.
Length 15 inches, extent of wings 23; bill along the ridge 3/4, along the
An adult male preserved in spirits. Length to end of tail 17 inches, to
end of wings 12 3/4; extent of wings 24, wing from flexure 8 2/12; tail 8.
The mouth is very narrow, being only 4 1/2 twelfths in breadth, but capable
of being dilated to the width of 1 inch by means of a joint on each side of the
lower mandible. There are two thin longitudinal ridges on the palate, of which
the sides slope upwards. The posterior aperture of the nares is 1/2 inch long,
margined with papillae. The tongue is 7 1/2 twelfths long, rather broad and
sagittate at the base, with numerous small papillae, but at the middle
contracted to 1 1/2 twelfths, afterwards horny, very narrow, induplicate, and
ending in a rather sharp point. OEsophagus,
Fig. 1 [a g], 5 1/2 inches long,
immediately dilated to 1 inch, and at the lower part of the neck enlarged into
an enormous sac, [b c d], 3 inches in breadth, and 2 1/2 inches in length, a
little contracted in the middle, with its inner surface smooth, and at the lower
aperture running into longitudinal prominent plicae; in the rest of its extent,
the width of the oesophagus, [e f], is about 10 twelfths. The stomach, [g h i],
is a very large and strong gizzard, placed obliquely, 2 inches 2 twelfths in
breadth, 1 inch 1 fourth in length; its lateral muscles exceedingly thick, the
left being 7 1/4 twelfths, the right 8 twelfths; the lower muscle prominent; the
tendons very large; the epithelium of a horny texture, of moderate thickness,
with longitudinal broad rugae, and two opposite longitudinal grinding surfaces,
of a yellowish colour. In the crop were found three entire acorns, and in the
stomach fragments of others, and three pieces of quartz. The intestine,
[i j k l m n], is 4 feet long, 4 twelfths in width, at the narrowest part only 2
twelfths. The duodenum, [i j k], curves in the usual manner, at the distance of
3 inches. The intestine forms six folds. The coeca, [m], are extremely
diminutive, being only 1 1/2 twelfths in breadth; they are 2 inches distant from
the extremity; the cloaca, [n], oblong.
The trachea passes along the left side, as usual in birds having a large
crop: its length is 2 3/4 inches; its breadth varying from 2 3/4 twelfths to
1 1/2 twelfths; its rings 105, feeble; the last ring large, formed laterally of
two rings, with an intervening membrane. Bronchi of about 15 half rings, and
narrow. The lateral muscles strong, as are the sterno-tracheal, which come off
at the distance of 1/2 inch. There is a single pair of inferior laryngeal
muscles going to the upper edge of the last tracheal ring.