The Parable of the Passenger Pigeon: How Colonizers’ Words Killed the World’s Largest Bird Population

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The Parable of the Passenger Pigeon: How Colonizers’ Words Killed the World’s Largest Bird Population

2020-10-23T10:16:39-07:00 October 23rd, 2020|Biology, Environment, Undergraduate Research|

By Jenna Turpin, Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology ‘22

Author’s Note: I started this piece as an assignment for my undergraduate expository writing class under the guidance of my supportive professor Hillary Cheramie. Hillary urged me to take my writing beyond her course. In May, I had the wonderful opportunity to share this research at the 2020 UC Davis Annual Undergraduate Research Conference. I want to continue to share my work through publication. I wrote this piece with the intention of inspiring both students and teachers. From this paper, students can learn the parable of the passenger pigeon and teachers can come to understand why teaching about the passenger pigeon matters.

I learned of the passenger pigeon during my first week of college at UC Davis. One of my professors, Dr. Kelt, explained a brief history of the passenger pigeon to my first-year wildlife ecology and conservation class. The lesson was about wildlife-human interactions and the destruction humans can execute on the environment. The passenger pigeon’s story shook me to my core. It was a disturbing portrayal of how people sometimes negatively shape ecosystems. For me, it reinforced all of the reasons I decided to study wildlife conservation. I want people who read this piece to feel the emotions I felt when I first took in the parable of the passenger pigeon and come to the belief that humans have a responsibility to conserve species through management, policy, and education. The more people who hear this parable, the more people who hold sympathy for our wildlife. It should be built into schools’ science and history curriculums. A greater understanding of the passenger pigeon will save future species from extinction.



Genre is the literary process through which people collectively communicate about a topic. Applied to a species, genre helps us understand how society communicates about that animal. Species’ genres change over time as different people interact with them. This influences human-wildlife interactions and thus plays a critical role in determining the fate of that species.  In the passenger pigeon’s (Ectopistes migratorius) prime, it was the most abundant bird species in existence but went extinct. The dynamics of human-wildlife interactions over time defined the progression of the passenger pigeon’s recorded history. These interactions varied based on how the dominant people in North America thought about the bird and the genre surrounding its existence. The parable of the passenger pigeon is a poignant example of why genre matters in preserving species and how this can go wrong. The analysis of the historical evolution of the passenger pigeon’s genre showed that the European colonization of North America is why these birds went extinct. I conducted a survey that showed that the passenger pigeon’s genre is fading among young people. Failing to spread the parable of the passenger pigeon is a threat to every currently endangered species and their respective genres.



The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) lived in North America and was described as having a “small head and neck, long tail, and beautiful plumage” [1]. In its prime, it had the largest population size of any bird species at the time but went extinct due to overexploitation and habitat loss caused by European settlers [1]. The dynamics of human-wildlife interactions over time defined the progression of the passenger pigeon’s recorded history. 

These interactions varied based on how the dominant people in North America thought about the bird and the genre surrounding its existence. Genre refers to “repeating rhetorical situations” to aid human interaction. In other words, it is the collection of how people refer to a specific topic. The definition of genre can be applied broadly. Genres are dynamic and develop over time, as people face new situations to apply them to. Every species has its own genre surrounding its existence. People participate in many genres on a daily basis, even if they do not know it. Genre is a “social action,” people shape genres and genres shape people [2].  The way groups of people collectively feel about anything is communicated through language. Thus, looking at the way people talked about passenger pigeons explains the processes that led to their downfall. The passenger pigeon is an effective ambassador for teaching youth about conservation because of the population’ rapid decline.


Historical Evolution

Indigenous People 

The passenger pigeon’s parable begins with Indigenous people who lived within the range of the bird, mostly covering only the Eastern half of America [1]. These Indigenous people were the first humans to interact with the passenger pigeon and create its genre. Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi tribe member was interviewed about seeing them in flight: “When a young man I have stood for hours admiring the movements of these birds. I have seen them fly in unbroken lines from the horizon…” [3]. Under Indigenous peoples’ care, the passenger pigeon numbers rose beginning in the years 100 to 900 C.E. [4]. This was because Indigenous people and passenger pigeons had a well-balanced relationship that allowed both populations to thrive.

Indigenous people carefully interacted with the passenger pigeon because it was an important game bird to them, second only to the wild turkey [1]. The passenger pigeon was a staple food of the Seneca, who named the bird jah’gowa, meaning “big bread” [4]. Tribes followed specific procedures for hunting the birds. Almost all tribes had a strict policybased in both religion and biologyagainst taking nesting adult passenger pigeons. This strategic wildlife management policy promoted chick survival by allowing parents to care for their young. The Sioux and the Iroquois League were among those known to enforce their rules on other hunters. Instead of hunting the birds during this time, they often used nests as an opportunity to closely observe the bird. Individual tribes also had additional policies. For the Ho Chunks, hunting of the passenger pigeon could only happen if the chief held a feast. When the birds returned in spring, they offered much needed seasonal food. Before the Seneca began the hunt, they monitored the nests until the chicks were two to three weeks old. The Seneca even went as far as managing the habitat of the passenger pigeon, for instance they did not allow the cutting of any tree a “chief” pigeon nested in [4]. Chief Pokagon of the Potawatomi tribe credits strategies such as this for not only allowing the pigeon to maintain its numbers but actually increasing them [1]. By thinking about the needs of the pigeons and adjusting behaviors to accommodate those needs rather than freely hunting them, the population was able to continue on as a reliable food resource for the tribes that used them.

Furthermore, the connection between the two species went beyond the typical predator and prey relationship. To many Indigenous people, the pigeons were not just food, they were a being. Passenger pigeons were included in the religion of some tribes through stories, song, and dance [1]. The Seneca believed that the pigeon gave its body to create their children. The passenger pigeon was so important to the Seneca that they termed albino ones “chief of all pigeons” and strictly forbade hunting them. The Cherokee and the Neutrals told similar stories of the bird as a guide to avoid starvation. The Seneca and the Iroquois opened their Maple Festival every year with a dance song about the bird. The Cherokee Green Corn Festival featured a dance mimicking a pigeon hawk in pursuit of a pigeon [4]. The pigeons held value in the lives of the people who benefited from them.


European Arrival

The Europeans recorded their first passenger pigeon on July 1, 1534 [1]. Right away, colonizers of every walk of life made note of the massive number of pigeons Indigenous people had maintained.  The average European enjoyed the sight, “…I was perfectly amazed to behold the air filled and the sun obscured by millions of pigeons…” [1]. Many accounts told the narrative of an undiminishable population. Schorger, a professional ornithologist confirmed this notion, stating that “no other species of bird, to the best of our knowledge, ever approached the passenger pigeon in numbers” [1]. More ornithologists like Alexander Wilson took records, “In the autumn of 1813…I observed the pigeons flying from northeast to southwest, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before…The light of the noon day was obscured as by an eclipse” [5]. Even Leopold described them as a “biological storm” that used the resources of the land to their advantage [6].

While everyone knew the birds to be copious, not everyone understood the science behind it. Ornithologists knew that the pigeons could thrive because they had ample food and habitat when the Europeans arrived. However, for the vast majority of Europeans who were not trained in biology, the flock of birds blocking out the sky was frightening and unexplainable. This is where the genre began to separate itself from Indigenous peoples’ understanding of the bird. Europeans constructed urban legends in an effort to explain what was unknown to them. When only one acorn was found in pigeons’ crop (food storage pouch), Europeans predicted death and sickness. The evidence they saw supported their beliefs, “It is a common observation in some parts of this state, that when the Pigeons continue with us all the winter, we shall have a sickly summer and autumn” [1].  



As colonizers made themselves more at home in North America, they encroached on passenger pigeon habitat and depleted their numbers. The colonizers did not take wildlife management into consideration while hunting. Instead, they killed far more than they took and failed to leave young and nesting birds alone [1]. Extinction seemed entirely impossible, they did not see a need to ensure the next generation of pigeons could continue, it was understood as a given. To compound this, the birds were generally not thought of highly in European cultures. The passenger pigeon was merely a thing to exploit rather than a being to feel for. They began to disappear from the places humans occupied, retreating into what wilderness remained [3]. 

People began to notice that the passenger pigeon populations were fading. Some states, like Ohio, actively avoided policies to protect the species, claiming “the passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, travelling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here to-day, and elsewhere to-morrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them or be missed from the myriad that are yearly produced” [1]. Other states, particularly Wisconsin, wrote laws to protect the species: “It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to use any gun or guns or firearms, or in any manner to main, kill, destroy, or disturb any wild pigeon or pigeons at or within three miles of the place or places where they are gathered for the purpose of brooding their young, known as pigeon nestings”. Laws along these lines were enacted in several states but no efforts were made to actually enforce them. Much of this was due to pushback by settlers to the laws. Farmers in particular protested any enforcement, worrying that allowing the pigeons to thrive would mean crop destruction [1]. To them, the pigeons were pests to get rid of, not preserve.



The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, was a resident of the Cincinnati Zoo up until her passing on September 1, 1914. She was named after First Lady Martha Washington and was housed with her companion named George. The pair never produced fertile eggs, the zoo’s captive breeding effort was too late to save the population [1]. The end of the species “removed more individual birds than did all the other 129 [previously recorded bird] extinctions put together”. They went extinct because of introduced species, chains of extinction, overexploitation, and habitat loss—all four of these were human-driven factors. Captive breeding, regulating hunting, and habitat protection could have saved them. However, these efforts were seldom made and not done early enough in the population’s decline [3]. The passenger pigeon was lost because of the genre Europeans created for it during the time it was still around.

The majority of non-indigenous Americans only appreciated the passenger pigeon and shifted their genre once they were no longer around. People now found a soft spot for the birds in their memories, “Alas, the pigeons and the frosty morning hunts and the delectable pigeon-pie are gone, no more return”. Artists incorporated these fond memories into their paintings, poems, and music. Monuments were erected around the United States inscribed with laments such as “this species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of Man” and “the conservationist’s voice was heard too late” [3]. People regretted the fact that future generations would not get to see the bird in the sky so they attempted to etch the passenger pigeon into everyone’s minds [6]. 

Making an effort to remember the passenger pigeon is important because the species’ story functions as a lesson and a guide for the future. However, in the past decade, the passenger pigeon is being forgotten. Many high school students are not taught about the population’s time on Earth and why they are now gone, as shown by a case study in Pennsylvania [7]. If people are no longer talking about it then the same mistake will be made again. At the same time, there are also organizations, like the Project Passenger Pigeon founded in 2014, working to tell the parable “through a documentary film, a new book, their website, social media, curricula, and a wide range of exhibits and programming for people of all ages” [8]. However, a small group of thoughtful individuals will not be enough to save the next species from human destruction if the story of the passenger pigeon does not make it into enough of the right hands.



Over the period of one month during March 2019, I surveyed teenagers regarding their passenger pigeon knowledge. At the time of the survey, the teenagers were high school or college students in the United States. The overall purpose of my survey was to investigate if young people are talking about the passenger pigeon in contemporary society. Of the fifty-one responses, three (6%) subjects spoke about the passenger pigeon accurately. Furthermore, eight (16%) subjects believed to know the true story of the passenger pigeon, all of those eight falsely stated that the passenger pigeon was used to carry messages. Eight (16%) subjects even claimed to have seen a live passenger pigeon since 2000. 

My survey found that very few teenagers have heard the parable of the passenger pigeon’s extinction. This group of people has gone through a large amount of schooling in their lives so far without being taught about the passenger pigeon despite its intertwining with significant historical events. The convenient fact about passenger pigeons is that they feel familiar to people since most have seen today’s common pigeon, the rock dove. It is easy for the uninitiated to imagine what a passenger pigeon was like based off of what they know about rock doves. The parable of the passenger pigeons can be taught in any classroom—science, history, art, and more. 

The experiment shows that the genre is not being passed on. This is exactly why the way contemporary society talks about this species and its genre matters. Education that advocates for proper wildlife management and policy is the key to saving species from extinction. 



The passenger pigeon species went from the world’s largest bird population to complete extinction, due to mistreatment from European colonizers. My survey of high school teenagers shows that people are not learning from this parable. This species makes itself an ideal candidate because of the rapid severity of its decline. It is increasingly important that we care about our environment before it is too late to take action. The clock is ticking, the passenger pigeon told us so. If we can learn to mourn a bird we never met, we will not have the opportunity to mourn the birds we know.


Works Cited

  1. Schorger, A.W. The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 1955.
  2. Dirk, Kerry. “Navigating Genres”. Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, vol. 1, Parlor Press, 2010.
  3. Avery, Mark. A Message from Martha. London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
  4. Greenberg, Joel. A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. New York, Bloomsbury USA, 2014.
  5. Wilson, Alexander. Wilson’s American Ornithology. Boston, Otis Broader and Company, 1853.
  6. Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York, Oxford University Press, 1954.
  7. Soll, David. “Resurrecting the Story of the Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 79, no. 4, 2012, pp. 507–519. JSTOR,
  8. Project Passenger Pigeon. The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2012, Accessed 19 February 2019.