On a clear day during the migration season, up and into the 19th Century, the skies around the Great Lakes might turn black. That is when literally millions of Ectopistes migratorius — the legendary Passenger Pigeon — were winging their ways to or from their nesting areas.
At perhaps as many as 5 billion, it was the most numerous bird on the continent. Now there are none. The last one believed to be seen alive in Ontario was at Penetanguishene, in 1902 by A.L. Young.
The birds were highly social, nesting in colonies so thick they often broke the limbs of the trees they were in. In Canada, they nested from the foot of the Rocky Mountains east to the Atlantic coast. They were sleek and streamlined, built for speed capable of exceding 60 mph. They also were good to eat, which contributed to their extinction. The last one died in captivity at the Cincinnati zoo in 1914. The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is said to have the largest collection of stuffed pigeons, and its files likely hold abundant information about the birds.
The story of the Passenger Pigeon has fascinated naturalists and the public for more than a century. In fact, it is amazing that so much is known, and has been published, about an animal that exists no more. Its extinction has shocked and disgusted Canadians for several generations.
“The passenger pigeon became a sacrifice to man’s greed and stupidity.”
So wrote Charles Neville in one of the best articles on the subject in Maclean’s Magazine, October 15, 1950. You can read it here: