Martha, You Didn’t Die in Vain – The Legacy of the Passenger Pigeon

Next year will commemorate the centennial of the passing of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, who died on September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.  Most Americans who only have only a passing knowledge of wildlife conservation are at least generally familiar with the demise of the species.

What few in our northern Michigan region are likely to know, however, is the important role that our river corridors played in sustaining their massive populations. At their peak, Passenger Pigeons numbered in the billions and represented as much as 25% to 40% of the total U.S. land-based bird population.  Accounts of skies blackened with birds in flight were numerous, and their survival seemingly depended on the volume of their numbers alone.

Photo Credit - Univ. of Illinois

Photo Credit – Univ. of Illinois

Perhaps the most infamous characterization of Michigan’s involvement in the species’ demise can be found at the state historical marker in Petoskey where it is said that in 1878, 50,000 birds were killed each day for nearly five months. It goes on to say that “millions of birds were killed, packed in barrels and shipped from Petoskey.”  This level of export volume was only made possible by the breeding grounds which lay to the east.

In addition to the vast nesting colonies found in the Crooked Lake area of Petoskey, the triumvirate of rivers flowing north out of what is now the Pigeon River State Forest – the Sturgeon, the Pigeon (hence the name) and the Black –  represented the epicenter of the Passenger Pigeon’s annual migration destinations.  As referenced in Dale Clarke Franz’s book Pigeon River Country, W.B. Mershon wrote in 1907 that guide and trapper George King had “for many years lived in the section that was formerly the great pigeon nesting and feeding ground in northern Michigan.”  This area later became known as Blue Lakes Ranch.  Franz goes on to write that “the birds would nest in colonies of up to two or three miles wide and perhaps 20 to 40 miles long. Sometimes there were 90 nests in a single tree.”

While little is known about the interrelationship between the seed deposition resulting from the almost unfathomable breeding population which existed along our northern Michigan riparian corridors, little doubt exists that Passenger Pigeons played an important role in post-fire reforestation and dare we say, BIODIVERSITY.

Although it is unlikely that any trees remain which have their direct origins with the seed dissemination made possible through the nesting activities of Passenger Pigeons, as one walks along the high-banks area of the former Blue Lakes Ranch and adjacent to the Black River, the likelihood exists that at least some of the organic material beneath our feet shares its origins with these avian relics.   At the risk of yet another shameless plug for the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, one’s ability to meander these Blue Lakes Ranch pathways is only made possible as a result of its 1990 acquisition on behalf of Michigan residents through this public Trust.

Despite of eleventh hour attempts to save this once boundless species, the combination of commercial hunting and habitat loss was ultimately too much to overcome.   The Passenger Pigeon is yet another example of how the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation would have likely saved a species had it been in place during that time.

For some, the greatest wildlife conservation movement in human history did not begin during the Theodore Roosevelt era, or even the North American Wildlife Conference of 1936.  For them, it began at a zoo in Cincinnati on September 1, 1914.  Thanks, Martha.


About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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