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Passenger Pigeon

By Eleanor Chiquoine

Recently, people in the United States had a pleasant surprise. An ivory-billed woodpecker, thought extinct by many, had been sighted.

People speak about how, in this modern age of media saturation, events often command only "15 minutes of fame." The news of the ivory-billed woodpecker lasted longer. Judging from all the media coverage it received, the sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker captured people's imagination. We had been given a second chance with this bird!

Ahhh, would that we could have a similar chance with the bird pictured here! Gone forever now, the passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, with a population estimated at over 3 billion birds. Long bodied (about 17"), a pretty pink-casted gray in color, and able to fly at 50 miles per hour, passenger pigeons astounded people with their habit of migrating and nesting in huge flocks. The whirr from their wings would deafen spectators and blot out the sun. When roosting, their huge numbers could break limbs from the trees, and their cooing could be heard for miles. This habit of sticking together would prove to be their downfall.

Once Europeans arrived in North America and began slaughtering the birds in their eastern haunts, their population began to decline. In 1871, an estimated 125 million passenger pigeons - probably the last big flock in America - chose to nest in

Wisconsin. The pigeons covered Adams County, and parts of Sauk, Columbia and Juneau counties.

In The Dells - An Illustrated History of Wisconsin Dells, Michael Goc quotes the Kilbourn newspaper of April, 1871:

"The great pigeon roost this year is in Wisconsin.... On April 22, for about two hours before nightfall they flew in one continuous flock, darkening the sky and astounding people by the noise of their wings. Hotels at Kilbourn are full of trappers and hunters. Coopers are busy making barrels. .. They are shipping to Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati...,From 10,000 to 30,000 (pigeons) are forwarded daily."

Sadly for us all, too few people had the foresight or power to intervene in their slaughter. By 1900, no passenger pigeons survived in the wild, and soon after that the last pigeons in zoos died.

Knowing history teaches this lesson: Humans must think ahead, and take action, to prevent extinction of wildlife. Unlike the ivory-billed woodpecker, we will never get another chance with the passenger pigeon.