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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Passenger pigeons. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

Dubuque Miners' Express (MINERS' EXPRESS (THE)), reprinted in the Vermont Phoenix, May 26, 1843

    There is an immense Pigeon Roost in 
    the forks of the Maquoketa river in 
    Jackson County, such as has never been 
    seen in this country before. It is 
    three miles long, and a half a mile in 
    width. There can be no estimate made of 
    their numbers. Their roosting places are 
    almost a mile distant from their nests 
    and feeding places, being three in number, 
    and each covering a section of land; and 
    in passing to and fro they darken the air 
    with their number; they break down young 
    trees with their weight and hundreds are killed by getting entangled in the
    falling limbs and branches. The people kill them with clubs; and their noise 
    is so loud that when a gun is fired amongst them, the report cannot be heard; 
    and a person can stand in one place and shoot all day, the birds returning as
    soon as you can load. They are building their nests, and the people are alarmed, 
    lest they may destroy their crops. (1)

Passenger pigeons were often described as blackening the skies when their colossal flocks passed overhead.

              A rough estimate of the number of birds passing a given 
              point in spring may be useful.  The cross-section of an 
              average flock was say, a hundred yards from front to rear, 
              and fifty yards in height, and when the birds were so 
              close as to cast a continuous shadow there must have been 
              fully one pigeon per cubic yard of space . . . or say 
              30,000,000 for a flock extending from woodland to the other.  
              Since such flocks passed repeatedly during the greater part 
              of the day of their chief flight at intervals of a few minutes, 
              the aggregate number of birds must have approached 120,000,000 
              an hour for, say five hours, or six hundred million pigeons 
              virtually visible from a single point in the culminating part 
              of a single typical migration.” 
                    W.J. McGee describing a flight near Dubuque, one spring 
                    day in the early 1860s or 1870s. (2)

The famous ornithologist John James Audubon claimed to have seen a flock take three days to pass by. The birds appeared inexhaustible and were treated as such. Each year over the course of several decades, hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed and trapped. They were shot for sport, commercially hunted, and even captured for use as live trapshooting targets.

              Ed Volkert of Dubuque used a net that was thirty by 
              sixty feet. He took as many as 1,500 birds in one 
              morning and sold the live birds for ten cents each 
              to be used as targets for trapshooting. The crippled 
              birds were killed and sold by the barrel, which went 
              for a dollar on the market in Chicago. (3)

Technology may have played a major role in the destruction of the species. The nesting places of passenger pigeons changed from year to year. By the time they were discovered and the hunters arrived, many of the birds had already moved on. This time gap closed with the invention of the telegraph. When word arrived, thousands of hunters would jump on newly built trains to ride to wherever the pigeons had settled and start slaughtering them. (4)

This technology-driven slaughter was decimating the passenger pigeon. Its decline was so worrisome that Congress passed the Lacey Act, one of the first laws to protect wildlife in the United States. The Lacey Act would eventually help protect many species, but for the passenger pigeon it came too late. (5) In 1900, the year in which the act was made into law, naturalists spotted a single wild passenger pigeon in Ohio. They never saw another one in the wild again.

Passenger pigeons likely remained in the wild, but all subsequent sightings were unconfirmed. President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, owned a cabin in Albemarle County, Virginia, known as Pine Knot. During a stay in May 1907, Roosevelt saw what he believed to be a small flock of passenger pigeons and wrote to naturalist John Burroughs. At Burroughs’ suggestion, Roosevelt was able to collect at least one statement of corroborative evidence from an Albemarle County neighbor. (6)

In 1907 the birds could still be viewed in captivity. By 1910, only a single individual remained, a female named Martha, at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. Passenger pigeons passed into history with Martha’s death at around 1:00 p.m. on September 1, 1914. (7)



1. "Pigeon Roost," Online: http://iagenweb.org/boards/jackson/documents/index.cgi?read=414250

2. Project Passenger Pigeon. Online: http://www.passengerpigeon.org/states/Iowa.html

3. Ibid.

4. Zimmer, Carl. "Century After Extinction, Passenger Pigeons Remain Iconic—And Scientists Hope to Bring Them Back." National Geographic. Online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140831-passenger-pigeon-martha-deextinction-dna-animals-species/

5. Ibid.

6. Passenger Pigeons. Online: http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Blog/2013/August/09-Passenger-Pigeons.aspx

7. Ibid.