What Have We Learned?

In the autumn of 1915, local hunters boasted to W. Lee Chambers of “how easily” they killed a favored local gamebird:

The method was to fasten a dead or half-dead pigeon on a stick or wire in the top of one of the oak trees where the birds commonly congregated…. This decoy would lead flock after flock to the slaughter, the market hunter being able to kill all he wanted without moving from the tree.

Sounds familiar.

This “simple device” had long been used to decoy the passenger pigeons, extinct just a year before. This time around, though, the victim was the band-tailed pigeon, in San Luis Obispo County, California, and Chambers warns “against a repetition of this former disgraceful method of slaughter.”

Band-tailed pigeon

Sad history had already begun to repeat itself two years before, when Chambers found the Sunday trains packed with “game hogs” who came out to shoot the pigeons for fun.

One can hardly calculate the number of birds killed by hunters in automobiles and those who started from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Santa Maria, Paso Robles, Lompoc and other small towns…. If something is not done very quickly these birds are doomed.

The situation was grim. Fortunately, Joseph Grinnell was on the case, and in 1913 he published a manifesto to save the band-tailed pigeon in California. A new ethic shines through his observation that

we would certainly be blamed forever if we took no steps to prevent a repetition of the deplorably thoughtless treatment which was given the now extinct Passenger Pigeon of the eastern states.

Yes, we learned something. Too late for the one, but just in time for its closest relative, the other big pigeon of the US and Canada.


Death Watch

By the summer of 1914, the handwriting was on the cage wall. On August 19, O.S. Biggs visited Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, at her home in the Cincinnati Zoo:

She [was] dying slowly of old age. Death was but a question of a few days…. She was at that time unable to sit on her perch and was on the bottom of her cage with her wings drooping, and was very weak and feeble.

Biggs, like most of his contemporaries, could still remember the wild bird. The last individual he had seen in Illinois was a female in a walnut grove in August 1896.

I mounted [it] and have [it] in my collection.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that there might, just might, be a connection between that shotgun blast in 1896 and the sad state of the species eighteen years later.

Illinois Natural History Survey