Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Passenger pigeon monument at Wyalusing State Park. © DNR File

A monument to the passenger pigeon was built in 1947 at Wyalusing State Park. You can visit the monument and learn more on a Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin field trip this year.
© DNR File

April 2014

Remembering a lost bird

It's been 100 years since the passenger pigeon became extinct.

Stanley Temple

As a precocious young birdwatcher paging through my nature books, I discovered fascinating birds that I would never see because they had gone extinct before I was born. Passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, ivory-billed woodpeckers and many other species would never make it onto my life list, and I felt saddened and cheated. Why had previous generations let these species disappear, and why hadn't they done more to prevent these irreversible losses?

I later learned that I was not alone in mourning the demise of a species we had carelessly pushed over the brink. In 1947 members of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology made a very public display of their grief when they erected a monument to commemorate the 1899 death of the last passenger pigeon in Wisconsin and the 1914 extinction of the entire species.

Many visitors to Wyalusing State Park have stopped at the Passenger Pigeon Monument, but the story of the monument and the lost bird it commemorates has faded with time. In 2014 that story needs to be retold for it still has an important lesson for our time.

In the mid-19th century several billion passenger pigeons roamed the East and Midwest in huge flocks that were once a spectacular feature of the Wisconsin landscape. Early Wisconsin naturalists, such as John Muir, described flocks darkening the state's sky.

Pigeons nested in huge colonies wherever they found an abundance of "mast," the nuts produced by forest trees such as oak, beech and chestnut. The largest nesting ever documented was in Wisconsin in 1871. It numbered in the hundreds of millions of birds and covered 850 square miles with pigeon nests in almost every tree. Today, Quincy Bluff and Wetlands State Natural Area, centrally located within the 1871 nesting area, still has oak woodlands that look much as they did when passenger pigeons nested there.

How could such an abundant bird have gone extinct in just a few decades? The simple answer is: We killed them and ate them. Because they congregated in such large numbers it was easy to kill them en masse. An expanded telegraph system alerted market hunters to when and where the birds were nesting, and railroads allowed the birds they killed to be transported to growing urban populations hungry for pigeons. Market hunters descended on the breeding colonies year after year, slaughtering the birds by the millions and preventing them from nesting. Killed in such large numbers and unable to reproduce, the passenger pigeon was doomed.

John James Audubon, James Fenimore Cooper and other 19th century naturalists deplored the unregulated massacre of the birds, but few efforts were made to save the passenger pigeon until it was too late.

Although the pigeon was gone forever, it was not forgotten. After the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO) formed in 1939, the group named its quarterly journal The Passenger Pigeon and an image of a pigeon graces the society's logo. In 1945 a group of WSO members decided to do even more to keep the passenger pigeon memory alive in Wisconsin. They would erect a public monument to the bird.

A bronze plaque featuring a passenger pigeon drawn by Wisconsin bird artist Owen Gromme was designed and A.W. [Bill] Schorger, one of Wisconsin's best natural historians, composed the inscription. At the WSO convention in 1946 the plaque was unveiled, and Aldo Leopold gave a stirring dedication speech. Future Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Famer Phil Sander designed a stone monument that the State agreed to construct on a panoramic bluff in Wyalusing State Park overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. A century earlier passenger pigeons would have winged past the site by the millions on their way to and from nesting areas in central Wisconsin's oak woodlands. Park Superintendent Paul Lawrence oversaw construction of the monument, which was completed in time for a dedication ceremony on May 11, 1947.

For the dedication, WSO published a now-classic booklet, Silent Wings, which contained two significant essays. One by Bill Schorger described in horrific detail the slaughter of birds during the great nesting in 1871. The other was Aldo Leopold's revision of his 1946 dedication speech, "On a Monument to the Pigeon." A year later, in 1948, Leopold would revise his essay once again and include it in his classic book, A Sand County Almanac. Here is an excerpt:

"We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

"Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

"There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all…

"This monument, perched like a duckhawk on this cliff, will scan this wide valley, watching through the days and years. For many a March it will watch the geese go by, telling the river about clearer, colder, lonelier waters on the tundra. For many an April it will see the redbuds come and go, and for many a May the flush of oak-blooms on a thousand hills. Questing wood ducks will search these basswoods for hollow limbs; golden prothonotaries will shake golden pollen from the river willows, egrets will pose on these sloughs in August; plovers will whistle from September skies. Hickory nuts will plop into October leaves, and hail will rattle in November woods. But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock. Tourists will read this inscription, but their thoughts will not take wing…"

Bill Schorger would spend 15 years meticulously searching historical documents for accounts of passenger pigeons and then literally "wrote the book" on the species. His 1955 book, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction, still stands as the definitive account of the pigeon's life history and extinction.

Although the passenger pigeon's extinction was one of the prime catalysts for the emergence of the 20th century conservation movement, since 1914 many more birds have gone extinct, and the rapidly growing list of endangered birds suggests that we have yet to heed the lesson of the passenger pigeon. Today, 12 percent of the world's birds, over 1,200 species, are threatened with extinction. Now, 100 years later, Wisconsin will again reflect on the passenger pigeon and its tragic demise.

Awareness, knowledge and reflection about the passenger pigeon will only make a difference if it leads to a better understanding of the current extinction crisis, the need for more effective conservation efforts in the 21st century and hope for positive change in the future. And that will only happen if the 2014 centennial can stimulate citizens and organizations to act.

Commemorative events
  • This year there will be several commemorative events around the state. At its annual convention, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology will hold a rededication ceremony at the Passenger Pigeon Monument on May 17.
  • Silent Wings has been reprinted. Visit wsobirds.org to order.
  • The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau will have a special exhibit of passenger pigeon artwork during fall (lywam.org).
  • The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters will host a series of special passenger pigeon events Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 (wisconsinacademy.org).
  • Other commemorative activities in Wisconsin will be listed on the Project Passenger Pigeon website (passengerpigeon.org).

Stanley Temple retired recently from the Beers-Bascom Professor in Conservation position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison once held by Aldo Leopold and he is now a Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo. He says he still feels saddened and cheated when another species goes extinct.