The Extinct Passenger Pigeons of Floyds Fork
The missing species of Floyds Fork are not limited to mammals, such as the extinct bison in our previous blog. Two notable birds, the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet, now completely extinct, inhabited Kentucky and undoubtedly Floyds Fork. The passenger pigeon, related and similar looking to the morning dove, was the most numerous bird in North America. Flocks of billions of birds migrating south darkened the sky for hours and days.
The passenger pigeon ranged throughout North America east of the Rockies, but its primary breeding range occurred from Kentucky to Cape Cod, and Maine to Minnesota. This range closely follows the mast trees—beech, oak, and hickory—of the central hardwood forest. The birds feasted on the mast (acorns, beechnuts, etc.) from these trees.
The pigeons arrived in April to nest in areas rich in hardwood mast. Beech trees were favored, as were oaks. Huge colonies (called cities) established themselves densely over hundreds of square miles. One nest colony in Wisconsin (1871) was L-shaped with the long arm averaging 6 miles wide and 72 miles long and the short arm 50 x 8 miles and contained some 136,000,000 birds. Over this forest the birds nested some 90 pairs to a tree, often breaking large branches in old trees.
The passenger pigeons’ strategy of nesting and roosting in huge colonies led to its remarkable success as North America’s most abundant animal. It also led to its extinction. As a huge colony, nesting in unpredictable locations, every native predator could be satiated by the birds without denting the population. Even the early American settlers had little effect on the population. It was not until transportation networks were laid around 1840 that the hunting really picked up. The birds were destined for markets on the east coast where some slaves and indentured servants ate only pigeon for meat. The hunters could easily target nesting colonies where very fat-rich (and tasty) squabs lay helpless. Adult birds, reluctant to abandon their chicks were also targeted. This style of hunting effectively ended the reproduction of the species in numbers necessary to sustain the population. Hunters simply weren’t letting juveniles replace adults to continue the species.
In the 1870s the portable sawmill was invented and sealed the fate for the passenger pigeons extinction. With that technology, settlers could penetrate deep into the deciduous forest to the richest sites for farming. The forest, the habitat which the passenger pigeon and many other species depended, was steadily cleared. Without huge forested nest areas and hardwood mast, the passenger pigeon could not survive and eventually went extinct in 1900.
In Pikes County, Ohio, in 1900 the last known wild passenger pigeon was shot by an 11-year-old boy. Martha, the last passenger pigeon known, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. In less than a century, the species went from most abundant on the continent, and possibly the world, to completely extinct. We can now only imagine the great swarms of birds flying across the Ohio River or the raucous noise from a nesting colony in the hardwood forest.
About the Author
As Director of Education, Curtis Carman oversees The Parklands Outdoor Classroom, promoting STEAM-based education through engaging, hands-on learning both outdoors and inside the classroom. Each year, his team of Education Specialists, Interpretive Rangers and Camp Counselors guide nearly 20,000 participants of all ages through school field trips, camps, Parklands Explorer, Junior Explorer and Wednesday Wonders. Prior to his promotion to Education Director in May of 2018, Curtis first joined The Parklands team as an Interpretive Ranger and led the department as Education Coordinator for three years. A native of Louisville and a graduate of Ballard High School, Curtis returned to his hometown after having worked as an environmental educator in Maine and Colorado at Acadia and Rocky Mountain National Parks. Curtis also served as Membership Manager at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy. Curtis enjoys hiking, biking, camping and kayaking.