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Friday, January 3, 2014

Passenger Pigeons in Lake County

Passenger Pigeon, 1920
from the Orthogenetic Evolution
in the Pigeons. Hayashi and Toda (artists)
2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. This bird once numbered in the billions in North America, but in a matter of decades market and recreational hunting drove the bird to extinction.

The first non-native settlers to Lake County in the mid-1830s found an abundance of wild game, including quail and passenger pigeons. Thousands of pigeons roosted in the county’s oak trees, eating acorns.


Remembrances of those early days were documented by students across Lake County, who in 1918 asked their elders for their memories of the passenger pigeons: In Newport Township, "Wild pigeons... flew in flocks of hundreds and helped furnish the pantry with delicious meat."

A woodblock engraving of passenger pigeons
in flight in Louisiana. From "The Illustrated Shooting 
and Dramatic News,"  July 3, 1875

In Ela Township, "There used to be a great many wild pigeons, but they were all shot. They flew in flocks that darkened the sun." 
Excerpt from Wauconda School students,
regarding passenger pigeons. LCDM 2003.0.46

In Wauconda Township, "There were flocks of quail, partridges and wild pigeons which were hunted for food, taking the place of chicken and turkey.  Great flocks of wild pigeons were common and they were considered a pest by the farmers.  They would pick up to small grain almost as fast as the farmers could sow it, for grain at that time was sown by hand.  Sometimes men and women were obliged to stay in the field to drive these flocks away."

From 1860 to 1880 there was a catastrophic decline in the passenger pigeons' numbers. 

Telegraph lines and railroads made it possible to share the location of passenger pigeon roosts with a nation-wide audience, including professional hunters. The market hunters, as they were called, brought their shot birds (by the tens of thousands) to major cities in order to sell their feathers and breast meat. 

There were also venues that specialized in pigeon shoots. The best known was Dexter Park, on the south side of Chicago. One match in 1877 involved the shooting of 5,000 passenger pigeons. Another match was visited by General Philip Sheridan (Fort Sheridan's namesake). 
Henry Kelso Coale, circa 1920
Library of Congress. 

In 1879, Henry Kelso Coale (1858 - 1926) of Highland Park, an amateur ornithologist and bird collector, "took specimens" of the pigeons. At the time, the bird's demise was already being talked about by conservationists, but Coale had found them breeding in the woods along the Des Plaines River, west of Lake Forest, and shot several for his collection. (
In 1936, the Field Museum in Chicago acquired a great portion of Coale's collection). 

In northern Illinois, the species was deemed to be abundant up to 1882. The last passenger pigeon in Lake County was recorded by John Farwell Ferry on August 7, 1895 in Lake Forest.

In 1912, Coale wrote that Lake County was "one of the most favored spots in Illinois for the study of birds," because of the variety. He also noted that the passenger pigeons were "formerly an abundant summer resident but now practically extinct." In fact, they would be extinct two years later.

The last passenger pigeon in the world, named Martha, was born in Hyde Park, Chicago about 1885 and was conveyed to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902. She died on September 1, 1914. 
Martha (c. 1885-1914), the last passenger pigeon, 
as photographed at the Cincinnati Zoo, ca. 1914.
To learn more: 

"The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction" exhibition explores connections between the human world and looks at some of the work being done to help prevent similar extinctions from occurring. Lake County Discovery Museum through February 2, 2014. 


Author and passenger pigeon expert, Joel Greenberg, will speak about the bird's demise and explain how the story of the passenger pigeon is a cautionary tale. The presentation will be based on Greenberg's new book, "Feathered River Across the Sky."  Greenbelt Cultural Center, Thursday, February 20, 2014, 7 - 8:30 p.m. Registration and payment required: Register online or telephone 847-968-3321. 

1 comment:

Kim@Snug Harbor said...

Very interesting facts. I enjoyed this post a great deal.