10 Facts About the Extinct Passenger Pigeon

Johann Seligmann, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Johann Seligmann, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just over one hundred years ago, the world’s last passenger pigeon died at Ohio’s Cincinnati Zoo. The bird—named Martha, after George Washington’s wife—had been born in captivity and was approximately 29 when she died. Her skin was taxidermied and her internal organs became part of the Smithsonian’s collections. In Martha’s memory, here are a few things you might not have known about the extinct passenger pigeon.

1. At one time, there were billions of passenger pigeons in North America.

Passenger pigeons illustration
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to Smithsonian, Ectopistes migratorius once made up about 40 percent of North America’s bird population; there may have been 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons when Europeans first came to America. In 1813, naturalist John James Audubon encountered a flock as he rode to Louisville:

"I dismounted … and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse …"

When he finally reached Louisville—55 miles from where he first saw the birds—they were still flying, and continued to pass for three days.

2. Passenger pigeons could fly very, very fast.

Stuffed passenger pigeon in flight
Jim, the Photographer, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Though awkward on the ground, these birds—which ranged from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia down to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, nested from the Great Lakes to New York, and wintered from Arkansas to North Carolina and further south—were graceful and highly maneuverable in the air, flying at speeds up to 60 mph.

3. And passenger pigeons were shaped for speed.

Passenger pigeon in a museum
Eden, Janine and Jim, A href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/edenpictures/5250295132/in/photolist-8ZX8PS">Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to Smithsonian, “The head and neck were small; the tail long and wedge-shaped, and the wings, long and pointed, were powered by large breast muscles that gave the capability for prolonged flight.” On average, males were 16.5 inches, while females were 15.5 inches.

4. male passenger pigeons were gorgeous.

Passenger pigeon
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // Public Domain

In the 1829 book American Ornithology, Alexander Wilson describes the males in great detail:

"[B]ill black; nostril covered by a high rounding protuberance; eye brilliant fiery orange; orbit, or space surrounding it, purplish flesh-coloured skin; head, upper part of the neck, and chin, a fine slate blue, lightest on the chin; throat, breast and sides, as far as the thighs, a reddish hazel; lower part of the neck and sides of the same resplendent changeable gold, green and purplish crimson, the latter most predominant; the ground colour slate; the plumage of this part is of a peculiar structure, ragged at the ends; belly and vent white; lower part of the breast fading into a pale vinaceous red; thighs the same, legs and feet lake, seamed with white; back, rump and tail-coverts, dark slate, spotted on the shoulders with a few scattered marks of black; the scapulars tinged with brown ; greater coverts light slate; primaries and secondaries dull black, the former tipt and edged with brownish white; tail long, and greatly cunei form, all the feathers tapering towards the point, the two mid dle ones plain deep black, the other five, on each side, hoary white, lightest near the tips, deepening into bluish near the bases, where each is crossed on the inner vane with a broad spot of black, and nearer the root with another of ferruginous; pri maries edged with white; bastard wing black."

The female, he notes, has a “cinereous brown [breast]; upper part of the neck inclining to ash; the spot of changeable gold green and carmine much less, and not so brilliant; tail-coverts brownish slate; naked or bits slate coloured; in all other respects like the male in colour, but less vivid, and more tinged with brown; the eye not so brilliant an orange.”

5. When passenger pigeons roosted, they could shear the limbs off trees.

Passenger pigeon
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // Public Domain

The birds made their homes in forests, flying out during the day to find food (mostly nuts and berries, but also worms and insects) and back at night to roost. According to Wilson, “It was dangerous to walk under these flying and fluttering millions, from the frequent fall of large branches, broken down by the weight of the multitudes above, and which in their descent often destroyed numbers of the birds themselves.”

6. The largest recorded passenger pigeon nesting site was in Wisconsin.

Passenger pigeons illustration
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1871, an estimated 136 million passenger pigeons nested over 850 square miles in central Wisconsin. Pottawatomie Chief Pokagon described the event:

"Every tree, some of them quite low and scrubby, had from one to fifty nests each. Some of the nests overflow from the oaks to the hemlocks and pine woods. When the pigeon hunters attack the breeding places they sometimes cut the timber from thousands of acres... I there counted as high as forty nests in scrub oaks not over twenty-five feet high; in many places I could pick the eggs out of the nests, being not over five or six feet from the ground."

There is a historical marker at Black River Falls to commemorate the event.

7. Passenger pigeons were really noisy.

Passenger pigeon
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // Public Domain

Aside from the “near-deafening noise” of nesting colonies, little is known about the vocalizations of wild passenger pigeons. What scientific descriptions we do have come from birds in an aviary, described by Wallace Craig in 1911. “If you tell a boy to look for a bird of the same general appearance as the Mourning Dove but larger, he will be sure to mistake some large-appearing Mourning Dove for the Passenger Pigeon,” Craig wrote. “But tell him to look for a pigeon that shrieks and chatters and clucks instead of cooing, and the boy will be less likely to make a mistake.”

He described five vocalizations, including a “unmusical” keck that was “loud, sometimes very loud, harsh, and rather high-pitched ... so far as it can be said to have any pitch at all. It is generally given singly, but sometimes two or more in succession with but, short pause between. … [It] resembles the kah-of-excitement also in that it is often followed immediately by other notes, such as the coo,” and “Scolding, Chattering, Clucking [which] represent the wide variations of this most characteristic and frequent utterance of the Passenger Pigeon. … Wm. Brewster (quoted in Bendire, p. 134) says: ‘They make a sound resembling the croaking of wood-frogs.’”

8. Passenger pigeon courtship rituals different from those of other pigeons.

Passenger pigeons illustration
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Most pigeons perform courtship rituals—which include bowing and strutting—on the ground, but the passenger pigeon was awkward there, so courtship took place on branches or other perches, according to Craig, with the male vocalizing, slightly flapping his wings, and holding his head over the female’s neck. Before mating, the birds would stand side by side, preen each other, and then clasp bills (which is decidedly not how John James Audubon illustrated it above; Craig wrote that "however great the value of this plate in other respects, its value as a record of the attitudes and habits of the species, is very little").

9. In 1900, a reward was offered to whomever could find passenger pigeons in the wild.

Passenger pigeon
Jeff B, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A slow decline in the mid-1800s was followed by a catastrophic decline [PDF], and by the late 1800s, it was unusual to see a passenger pigeon in the wild. In an article published on January 16, 1910, The New York Times [PDF] announced that a “THREE HUNDRED DOLLAR REWARD Will Be Paid for a Nesting Pair of Wild Pigeons”:

"Unless the State and Federal Governments come to the rescue of American game, plumed and song birds, the not distant future will witness the practical extinction of some of the most beautiful and valuable species. … The wild pigeon fifty years was so common in the United States that during migratory periods the flocks that crossed the country sometimes dulled the sun from the view of the man below. To-day a standing reward of $300 is offered to any person who can show a nesting pair of these birds."

Sadly, it was too little, too late; the last passenger pigeon seen in the wild was shot that year. Deforestation and the boom-and-bust availability of its food were factors in the bird’s extinction. Hunting, also, may have done the species in; they went from huge numbers to extinct in just 40 years.

10. Scientists are trying to bring the passenger pigeon back.

Passenger pigeon
Biodiversity Heritage Library, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, launched in 2012, aims to bring back the passenger pigeon using the DNA of its closest relative, the band-tailed pigeon. According to National Geographic, the scientists working on the project “can't extract an intact passenger pigeon genome from museum specimens. So they're hoping they can do the next best thing: retool the genome of a living bird species so that it gives rise to a passenger pigeon." The plan is to study DNA from museum specimens to see what sequences might be responsible for passenger pigeon traits; then, once they've created a genome similar to the passenger pigeons, they'll "insert this altered DNA into reproductive cells in band-tailed pigeon embryos. The birds will mature, mate, and lay eggs. And out of those eggs will emerge passenger pigeons—or at least birds that are a lot like the way passenger pigeons used to be.”

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

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2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

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5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

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6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

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7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

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10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About Argentine Ants

A pile of genetically-related Argentine ants
A pile of genetically-related Argentine ants
Marc Matteo, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A supercolony of invasive Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) stretches for 560 miles beneath California, from San Diego to San Francisco. The billions of Argentine ants are unlike other ants in many ways—and they are virtually indestructible. Along with their supercolonies in Europe, Japan, and Australia, L. humile’s global domination is rivaled only by that of human beings. Here’s what you should know about these prolific pests.

1. Argentine ant colonies are ruled by hundreds of queens.

Most ant colonies revolve around a single queen. Growing much larger than the worker drones, she is programmed to mate as quickly as possible, then to leave her nest of origin and establish a new one. In some species, a single queen can lay millions of eggs in a lifetime, producing an army of worker drones and future queens who will go off to build their own nests. But unlike most ants, Argentines are polygynous: Each nest contains multiple queens. In some, they can form up to 30 percent of the population.

2. Argentine ants move their nests frequently.

Nest types vary from ant species to ant species, but those who live in soil commonly dig tunnels and chambers deep into the earth that will protect the colony throughout the life of the queen. L. humile, though, is transient and ever shifting. Argentine ants frequently pack up their eggs and move the entire colony, queen and all, to a new nest, even when there is no apparent threat. Biologist Deborah Gordon told Ars Technica that the ants typically have 20 to 30 shallow nests at any one time, which can be built up in a matter of just weeks.

3. Argentine ants traveled the U.S. before settling down in California.

Argentine ants arrived in the United States from Northern Argentina in the late 19th century, when the first recorded Argentine ant was found in Louisiana in 1891. Researchers believe that the ants hitched a ride to North America in Argentinian shipments of coffee or sugar off-loaded at the Port of New Orleans. From there, they traveled—most likely by train—across the South and into California. Enticed by the Mediterranean climate, one similar to that of its original home in South America, the ants set up shop. By 1907, they’d displaced local native ants and begun their first steps towards total soil domination along 560 miles of California coastline.

4. California’s Argentine ants are more laid-back than their South American cousins.

In side-by-side comparisons of Argentine ants from their South American homeland and California, researchers have found that those from the West Coast are far more mellow than those from Argentina. In studies, it was typical for two ants from different nests to fight when placed in the same vial in Argentina, but in California, ants from different nests rarely fought, even when they were collected from locations several hundred miles apart.

A DNA study of ants from both locations in 2000 revealed a stark difference. In the ants from Argentina, microsatellites—short, uniquely patterned DNA sequences passed down from generation to generation—had more than twice as much variation as the microsatellites of the Californian ants. When two individuals from different nests in California were placed together, they recognized one another as family. The ants from Argentina didn’t, making them more likely to display territorial aggression.

The difference is rooted in the genetic bottleneck the ants encountered on their arrival to the Golden State over a century ago. According to biologist Neil D. Tsutsui, who conducted the DNA study, the ants in California today are all descendants of that founding colony. “It would be as if all of the people in the United States were descended from the Pilgrims who came here in 1620,” he told the Stanford Report in 2004. Instead of competing with one another, generation after generation has worked together to take out native ants and build an immense California colony.

5. Argentine ants protect other insects in exchange for sweet, sweet honeydew.

Argentine ants
Two Argentine ants share a tiny blob of honeydew.
Davefoc, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Argentine ants love to feed on sweet nectar, but flowers and suburban kitchens aren’t the only source of such desirable foodstuffs. Insects that feed on plant sap, like mealybugs, scales, and aphids, naturally excrete sugar-rich liquid “honeydew” from their butts. To secure a steady flow of the sticky-sweet substance, Argentine ants will fight off the predators of their insect chefs, including soldier beetles and midges. They’ll even relocate their honeydew producers to better food sources or microclimates to get the most they can out of their anal secretions.

6. The California Argetine ant supercolony is one-sixth the size of Southern Europe’s.

The California supercolony, which scientists have named the “Californian large,” is only the second-biggest conglomeration of Argentine ants in the world. The biggest colony is found along Southern Europe’s Mediterranean coast, where it stretches 3700 miles from northern Italy to the Atlantic coast of Spain. The ants, introduced around 80 years ago, now number in the billions. Smaller supercolonies also exist in Japan and Australia.

7. Argentine ants are second only to humans in their scale of world domination.

In 2009, researchers discovered that Argentine ants from three of the world’s largest supercolonies (Southern Europe, California, and Japan) are so closely related that they actually form a single mega-colony. The study, led by Eriki Sunamura from the University of Tokyo, found that when placed together, ants from the three supercolonies refused to fight. Instead, they rubbed antennae in greeting the way L. humile does when interacting with genetically-related individuals.

The researchers believe that the Argentine ant mega-colony isn’t just the largest insect colony ever identified; it rivals that of human colonization around the globe. Presenting their findings in the journal Insect Sociaux, they wrote, “the enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society.”

8. A mass execution of Argentine ant queens takes place every spring.

Each spring, just before mating season begins, worker ants go on a killing rampage and assassinate 90 percent of their queens. Entomologists aren’t sure exactly why the large-scale execution occurs, but one hypothesis, published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology in 2001, suggests that it is a “spiteful behavior” to kill the queens that are less related, on average, to the workers.

In their study, researchers from the University of Lausanne hypothesized that Argentine ants are regularly separated from direct family members through free exchange among the nests. Before mating season begins each year, those that are genetically related band together to kill more distantly related queens. Doing so decreases the nest’s genetic diversity and allows it to be rebuilt with a queen who is directly related to the greatest majority of workers.

The study’s results were inconclusive and the question remained unanswered, yet researchers learned something unexpected in the process. Instead of finding genetic diversity among worker ants, those belonging to each nest were actually a homogenous population. Only the queens were genetic outliers with relatively few familial relationships in each nest.

9. Climate change is making Argentine ants more of a nuisance to humans.

Argentine ants thrive in a Mediterranean climate where winters are cool and wet and summers are warm and dry. When conditions are ideal, they largely keep to themselves, but when conditions are drought-like or extremely wet, the ants move indoors in search of more hospitable climes. Experts at survival, Argentine ants can find food or water that’s been left unguarded in just minutes.

With the climate crisis, conditions in California are becoming more extreme. Hot days, no longer relegated just to the summer months, are becoming more numerous and prolonged. Droughts are becoming more frequent. While these changes are unlikely to harm much of the California supercolony, they are likely to drive the residents of urban nests more frequently into people's homes, making the ants a major nuisance for residents from San Diego to San Francisco.

10. Argentine ants are almost impossible to eradicate.

Individual Argentine ants are easy enough to kill, but an Argentine ant colony is a different story. The California colony has no natural predators and, thanks to their high levels of cooperation and massive numbers, L. humile has effectively destroyed possible competitors and disrupted the ecological balance of native species in the process. Insecticides, which are unable to penetrate into the underground nests, aren’t particularly effective. And because the ants can pick up and move their entire nest so quickly, neither are household control measures such as ant bait. After just over a century in California, Argentine ants are now virtually invincible.