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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Sad anniversaries in the bird world

Illustration of a passenger pigeon by former Grand Forks Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs.1 / 2
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This week brings a sad anniversary in the bird world.

Passenger pigeons were seen in Larimore, N.D., on April 22, 1891. That would be 123 years ago on Tuesday.

It actually wasn’t the last passenger pigeon sighting in North Dakota. A large flock was seen on March 22, 1892.

Robert Stewart, author of “Breeding Birds of North Dakota” (Tri-College Center for Environmental Studies, Fargo, 1975) credits both of these sightings to someone named Taxi who wrote about them for Forest and Stream magazine.

The passenger pigeon had less than a quarter century ahead of it. The last one died in a zoo in Cincinnati in September 1914. Her name was Martha..

The Red River Valley was not at the heart of the passenger pigeon’s breeding range. That was to the south and east, in the hardwood forests of Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

Nevertheless, passenger pigeons occurred here regularly.

Elliott Coues reported “vast numbers in the timber along the Red River” in 1874 and 1878.

Coues is an authority worthy of respect. He was the pre-eminent ornithologists of his generation. He was in Pembina, N.D., as part of a survey of the international border.

Here is more of what Coues had to say about passenger pigeons in the Red River Valley, as quoted by Stewart:

“For several days the immense flocks were almost continually in view. Many nested in this region; females ready to lay were found, and nests were observed the greater part of June.

“The nests were usually in the horizontal forks of branches of small trees and saplings, generally 10 or 12 feet from the ground.”

Coues reported collecting a nest with a single egg on June 13, and adult birds on several occasions.

He noted, “A few birds also straggled westward to the Turtle Mountains.” He shot one there in July.

Alexander Henry, an early fur trader, saw “great numbers” of passenger pigeons at the mouth of the Park River in present-day Walsh County, N.D. The birds were flying north.

Coincidentally, that sighting also took place on April 22, this time in 1801.

On April 24 of the next year, Henry saw “extraordinary numbers” at Pembina.

Another observer, a Mr. Gary, found passenger pigeons “very abundant” in the woods at Pembina

There are records for the Missouri River Valley, too, as far west as the mouth of the Yellowstone River just inside today’s border between North Dakota and Montana.

Lewis and Clark established the existence of passenger pigeons along the Missouri in 1805, when the explorers found them near the mouth of the Sun River about two-thirds of the way across Montana. This is one of the westernmost records of nesting passenger pigeons.

Of course, these records may not — probably don’t — reflect the breadth of their range or the extent of their numbers. The Red and Missouri rivers were important routes for exploration and trade, so it’s no surprise that most records involve these rivers.

The situation in Minnesota is somewhat different, since the state was settled earlier, while passenger pigeons were still abundant. Records come mostly from the southern part of the state. These include a W.J. Mayo, one of the founders of the famous clinic.

Mayo wrote to Thomas Sadler Roberts, the great Minnesota ornithologist and author of the monumental tome “The Birds of Minnesota” (University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1932).

Here’s part of Mayo’s letter to Roberts, written in 1929:

“I remember very well the last pigeon roost there was in this part of the country; it must be more than fifty years ago. It is almost inconceivable, but the birds were in such numbers as to obscure the sun when they were in flight.”

Despite this incredible abundance, the passenger pigeon became extinct. Scientists have offered a range of reasons, from overhunting to fragmentation of habitat to collapse of the hardwood ecosystem due to extensive clearing.

This year’s centennial of Martha has brought a renewal of interest in the passenger pigeon, including a proposal to recreate the bird from the DNA of preserved specimens.

Despite their name, the passenger pigeon didn’t really resemble the common domestic pigeon, more properly called “rock dove.” Instead, in shape it was more like the mourning dove, although it was larger. In both size and conformation, but not in plumage, it pretty closely approximated the Eurasian collared dove, which has now become common in much of North America, perhaps supplanting the passenger pigeon, in some small respect, at least.

Jacobs is a former publisher of the Herald. Reach him at