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Passenger Pigeon: Market Hunting at its Worst


The sad story of the Passenger Pigeon surely represents the most spectacular example of avian overexploitation in human history. Perhaps a worthy rival exists today in the massive overfishing of the great cod fisheries in the western North Atlantic, culminating in their closure to commercial fishing in the mid-1990s.

As in the case of these fisheries, intensive market hunting of Passenger Pigeons was aided by ever-improving technology. Sophisticated netting techniques allowed the "catch" to be more complete. Whole railroad lines were installed to export hundreds of tons of squabs (young pigeons) and adults from massive colonies in the northern deciduous forests to city markets, and freezer cars facilitated this long-distance shipping.

Because the species nested in dense colonies and nestlings were easy and delicious prey, a colony's entire reproductive output could be wiped out during a single season. As a final blow, the Passenger Pigeon's ultimate collapse may have been unusually swift because the remaining birds simply stopped breeding altogether.