On Friday last we awoke at a late breakfast hour, and, it was so dark that we thought it was cloudy. On looking out of doors, however, we were amazed to see the sun’s rays were obfuscated, not by the usual cumulus, but by a cloud of wild pigeons, that made the air above fairly roar like a hurricane. One flock seemed to be a mile or more in length, and several hundred yards in breadth. The heavens, for many minutes, were darkened. Quantities were killed by the boys in town and country, and during the day wagon loads were offered for sale, cheap, on the streets. The pigeon properly cooked, is a delicious bird – truly equal to the delicate teal duck.
A week later, it was reported that a hunting party from Tuscaloosa returned with more than 1200 pigeons that they distributed throughout the community. A Tuscaloosa newspaper editor even lamented that tables and sideboards groaned under the weight of pigeon pies, and that everyone was tired of eating them. In 1874, it was reported in another newspaper that farmers near Talladega, Alabama, removed 30 tons of pigeon droppings from a roosting area for use as fertilizer.
These birds were the now extinct passenger pigeon, (Ectopistes migratorius), a close relative of the mourning dove, having similar size, body shape, and coloration. Passenger pigeons were a woodland species inhabiting hardwood forests with food resources such as chestnuts, acorns, and beechnuts. These birds also fed upon agricultural grains, fruits, and berries. For centuries, Native Americans utilized this seemingly inexhaustible resource. The early ornithologists Audubon and Wilson estimated the total U.S. population of passenger pigeons to be from three to five billion birds – or about 30 to 40 percent of the entire bird population of North America.
However, as settlement of the Midwest and South intensified and cities rapidly grew, the passenger pigeon became an inexpensive source of food. The pace of exploitation intensified as commercial hunters devised highly efficient methods of killing millions of the birds. Thousands of tons of salted pigeon were shipped by rail to major cities. By the 1880s, their numbers began a dramatic decline. According to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the last passenger pigeons seen in the state were a small flock sighted in Henry County in southwest Alabama in 1909. The last known live passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in 1914.
The cause of the extinction of the passenger pigeon is not clearly understood, although it is believed that over-hunting, loss of nesting habitat, and a low reproduction rate played major roles. Another major factor may have been the blight that destroyed vast forests of the North American chestnut tree, perhaps the single most important food resource for passenger pigeons.
A resource that had once fed millions, including many in Tuscaloosa, had disappeared. Today, the only surviving examples of these birds are preserved specimens in museums or zoological collections. However, in recent years, scientists have been collecting and studying the DNA extracted from these specimens, with the goal of eventually genetically engineering the return of the passenger pigeon. If that happens, perhaps one day Tuscaloosans will once again look in amazement to the skies.