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.”

5 Ways You Can Help the Jaguar Rescue Center Save Costa Rica’s Wildlife

A curious sloth says hello after members of the Jaguar Rescue Center reunited her with her baby.
A curious sloth says hello after members of the Jaguar Rescue Center reunited her with her baby.
Jaguar Rescue Center

In 2005, Catalonian primatologist Encar Garcia and her husband, Italian herpetologist Sandro Alviani, were living in southwestern Costa Rica when locals began to bring them injured animals in hopes that the two experts could save them. As word spread and more animals arrived, their property slowly transformed into a full-fledged rescue center. So they purchased the surrounding land and named their new organization the Jaguar Rescue Center (JRC), after one of their early rescues: a young, orphaned jaguar whose mother had been killed by farmers.

Today, the center covers nearly 5.5 acres of land near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa Rica’s Limón province. It can accommodate around 160 animals at a time, and is home to everything from spider monkeys to sea turtles (though, by law, staff members aren’t allowed to accept domesticated animals like cats and dogs).

While locals still bring injured and orphaned animals to the JRC, others are brought by tourists, the Ministry of Environment and Energy, the National Animal Health Service, and even the police, who confiscate animals that have been poached or illegally kept as pets.

howler monkey at jaguar rescue center
Skye, a young howler monkey who recovered from electrocution.
Jaguar Rescue Center

The rescues are often victims of road accidents, animal attacks, environmental destruction, human interaction, or electrocution from exposed power lines. After the animals are rehabilitated, they’re released into La Ceiba Natural Reserve, a human-free (except for JRC workers) part of the forest where they can safely reacclimate to living in the wild. The JRC has cameras installed in the area to monitor the animals after their release and make sure they’re finding enough food.

Unfortunately, not all the creatures brought to the JRC recover from their injuries—in 2019, for example, 311 of the 749 rescues died [PDF]—so JRC staff members and volunteers understand just how remarkable it is to watch an animal regain its health and be successfully returned to its natural environment.

“There are so many amazing things about working for the JRC, but I think we all can agree that seeing a rescued animal make it through rehabilitation and be released is the best and most rewarding part of the job,” Torey, a JRC tour guide, tells Mental Floss.

Some thought-to-be-orphaned sloths are even released right back into the arms of their mothers. After recording the cries of a baby sloth, JRC staff will take the sloth back to wherever it was first found, play the recording, and wait for the mother to recognize the cries and (slowly) climb down from her leafy abode to reunite with her child.

Despite its partnerships with government agencies, the JRC doesn’t receive government funding. Instead, it relies on public donations and revenue from its visitor services. Find out more about how you can help below.

1. Donate money.

You can make a one-time or monthly donation that will go toward food, medical care, and supplies for the animals, or you can donate specifically to the JRC’s “Shock Free Zone” program, which insulates power lines and transformers that run through forests to prevent them from electrocuting wildlife.

2. Donate items.

Check out the JRC’s Amazon wish list to see which items are most needed—and what they’ll be used for, too. Examples include Pampers diapers for baby monkeys, snake hooks for safely rescuing snakes, and cans of worms to feed birds, opossums, and bats.

One of the most important products on the list is powdered goat’s milk, which staff members use to feed orphans of many mammalian species at the JRC.

“It has the most universally digestible enzyme compared to other milk,” Torey says. “Unfortunately, we do not have sloth milk, monkey milk, etc. readily available for the baby animals.”

3. “Adopt” an animal.

diavolino, a margay at the jaguar rescue center
Diavolino, the Jaguar Rescue Center's "feisty little margay."
Jaguar Rescue Center

For $105, you can virtually “adopt” an animal at the JRC. Choices range from Diavolino, a “feisty little margay” rescued from the illegal pet trade, to Floqui, a whitish two-fingered sloth who was born with only one digit on each hand and foot.

4. Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center.

You can stay overnight at the JRC in one of its three visitor residences—La Ceiba House, Ilán Ilán House, or one of the Jaguar Inn bungalows—which offer a variety of amenities, restaurant service, and access to nearby beaches.

Whether or not you’re staying there, you can book a tour of the JRC, where you’ll get to explore the premises and even meet some of the animals. There are private, public, nighttime, and VIP tours, and you can find out more here.

5. Volunteer at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

If you’re looking for a more hands-on, potentially life-changing way to help Costa Rica’s wildlife, you can apply for the JRC’s four-week volunteer program or a position at La Ceiba Natural Reserve that lasts three to six months.

According to the website, JRC volunteers are housed in the Jaguar Inn and help with “a broad range of tasks, from doing the dishes and cleaning up after the animals ... to building and remodeling enclosures, or babysitting a new arrival to ease the stress of their new environment.”

La Ceiba volunteers, on the other hand, stay right on the reserve and do everything from monitoring captive and recently released animals to keeping the trails clear.

Find out more about becoming a volunteer here.

YouTube Star Coyote Peterson Brings 'Misunderstood' Animals to His New Animal Planet Series

Animal Planet
Animal Planet

As host of the popular YouTube series Brave Wilderness, Coyote Peterson is no stranger to going face-to-face with creatures many deem terrifying—think great white sharks and pit vipers—but that he says are simply "misunderstood."

Animals have always been a big part of Peterson's life, even before he made a career out of being stung and bitten by ferocious critters. The Ohio native studied video production and directing at Ohio State University, and then decided to combine his two passions—film and all things wild—to teach viewers about wildlife and the importance of conservation. His YouTube channel currently has more than 15 million subscribers.

Now Peterson is embarking on a new adventure with Animal Planet in the show Brave the Wild. He'll travel all over the world with wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa and his crew, sharing creatures that aren't often in the spotlight and that viewers may find a little frightening. He recently chatted with Mental Floss about the importance of conservation, his thing for snapping turtles, and his close encounter with a jaguar and her three cubs.

You’ve said your love of animals started with snapping turtles. Can you talk about the first time you saw one and what about them fascinated you so much?

The first snapping turtle I caught was when I was only 8 years old. I was always fascinated with turtles, because at first glance they look prehistoric, almost dinosaur-like. Growing up in Ohio, I never got to see any "exotic" animals. My favorite thing to watch on TV was Steve Irwin. Watching him wrestle crocs is what inspired me to catch my first snapping turtle, the most dangerous animal Ohio has to offer.

Coyote Peterson with a gigantic snapping turtle
Animal Planet

In Brave the Wild, you introduce animals that are often feared or misunderstood. What's the importance in exposing viewers to these creatures?

One of my goals through this series was to inspire people to overcome their fears of these seemingly dangerous animals and learn to admire them from a safe distance. The more you understand these creatures, the less you are afraid of them. One of the messages I try to convey in every episode is the importance of conservation.

What’s the most "misunderstood" creature you've encountered?

The most misunderstood creature that comes to mind is the carpet shark, which we filmed in season one. As I always say, people’s biggest fears are the three S’s (sharks, snakes and spiders). The carpet shark is found off the coast of Australia. They only bite humans in the case of mistaken identity. To some of these sharks a person’s foot might look like a fish. Any time you enter a new environment you need to be aware of what you need to look for, not only to keep yourself safe, but the animal as well.

What goes into preparing for each encounter to make sure you and the animals come out alive?

With any new expedition, you need to come into the environment knowing exactly what to expect. When encountering a new animal, I try to stay as calm as I can and have no hesitation. If I stay calm, the animal stays calm, [and] I'm creating a safer interaction for myself. I use different tactics when I encounter different animals. It also depends on whether the environment is land or in water.

How do you keep your composure on camera when you're in a potentially dangerous situation?

Any situation I find myself in, I look at it as my job. For example, I would be afraid operating a crane, because that is something I don't do. If it's part of your job, it's something that you get used to. When I do my job, I make sure I'm focused and never hesitate. Before I encounter any animal, I know what I'm going to say to the camera. I say that, for the best show, we always need to have the camera rolling so the audience can see what is happening.

Coyote Peterson with a kangaroo
Animal Planet

You were in Australia filming Brave the Wild during bushfire season. What was that like?

Visiting Australia was one of the best experiences I had filming the show. Australia is a fascinating country that has so many unique environments. We spent over 50 days in Australia and encountered more than 35 different species. We were there right before all these devastating fires started, and we got to witness the severity of the drought and all the different animals it impacted.

What was your favorite animal encounter in upcoming series?

Each encounter I have in the wild is special. I would have to say that the most exciting moment for me was when we were filming in Brazil and I saw a jaguar and three of her cubs up close. Not only did I get to see this in real life, but my amazing team was able to capture this special moment on tape. It is just so amazing seeing these animals survive and thrive in the wild while dealing with not only the dangers of the wild but human encroachment as well. Hands down, this was my favorite episode that we got to film.

Catch new episodes of Brave the Wild on Animal Planet, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

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