An Early False Alarm, Unheeded

One of those Michigan pigeons of 1889.

In August 1901, when that famous pigeon Martha was in her mid-teens, the New York Times Magazine published a premature — but no less appropriate — eulogy for her species. Ed Mott wrote that the pigeon was

to-day extinct, so far as anyone has been able to discover, although less than fifteen years ago it was abundant on this continent and to the people of this State was as familiar as sparrows now are.

Mott even knew exactly when the end had come:

One day in 1889 these birds were apparently as numerous as they had ever been within the memory of man. The next day they had disappeared, and no one has seen or heard positively anything of them since.

No one, he reported, could say exactly what had happened, but one thing was certain. In spite of the efforts of “netters, gunners, squabbers,” and other hungry, curious, or gratuitously murderous humans, there were in every case

more pigeons in the woods when the colony abandoned them than when the birds came in. This remarkable fact was noticeable invariably at all pigeon roosts, so that the theory that the wild pigeon has become extinct, like the buffalo, through ruthless slaughter, will not hold.

Instead, their passing was “sudden and mysterious,” a curious phenomenon worthy of mention in the Times, yes, but without connection to us except for the loss of “a source of great pleasure and profit to the sportsman and pothunter and snarer.”

There was no online “Comments” section back then, but Mott’s animadversions struck a chord with some of his readers.

One wrote from The Bahamas with encouraging news of “large flocks of wild pigeons coming from the West,” which “darkened the air in their flights” — familiar words, those — and provided both locals and visitors from the mainland with “much sport.” Could these be, Mott’s correspondent wondered, “the American wild pigeon … who has sought for his Winter sojourn more remote and sparsely settled lands”?

Another recalled having read, some two years before, “a long account of the reappearance of the pigeon in a Western town — in Iowa or Minnesota, I forget which.”

Such hearsay and speculation were trumped a week later, when Robert Barbour of Montclair, New Jersey, reported his own sighting of two passenger pigeons in Caldwell in September 1900. Barbour wrote to Frank Chapman at the American Museum about his sighting, but received no reply.

And that was the end of the discussion in the pages of the Times. No outcry of regret and remorse, no calls for habitat conservation. The bird would go unmentioned in the paper for another five years, when it was once again conjectured that “the bird [had] sought new resting and breeding places,” this time “perhaps somewhere in the southern part of South America.”

Today, a hundred years after certainty was attained, we’d react differently.