Its features don’t stand out and it may not appear as impressive as some of the other hundreds of mounted birds on display at the Everhart Museum in Scranton.
But it could be the most important.
On the top shelf of a glass display cabinet sits a mounted specimen of a male passenger pigeon. Museum curator Nezka Pfeifer said there aren’t any records about where the bird was collected, but she estimated it’s well over 100 years old.
That makes sense, considering today marks the 100-year anniversary of when the last passenger pigeon died and the species became extinct. The Everhart Museum is one of 11 locations in the state known to have a passenger pigeon specimen (the museum actually has five but four aren’t on display) and it’s believed there are just 1,500 mounted specimens existing in the world.
“It’s an honor for us,” said Pfeifer. “It’s something that a lot of people don’t realize we have here.”
When the last passenger pigeon — a female named Martha that was kept at the Cincinnati Zoo — died on Sept. 1, 1914, it marked the end for a species that just 40 years earlier numbered in the billions. The bird inhabited deciduous forests and its range included much of the eastern half of the U.S. Pennsylvania was a prime location for the great passenger pigeon flocks, which early accounts claimed were many miles in length.
Locally, passenger pigeon nesting colonies were reported in Wyoming County, along Mehoopany Creek in what is now State Game Lands 57. That colony, which was reported in 1869, was 7 miles long and 3 miles wide.
Doug Gross, supervisor of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Endangered and Nongame Birds Section, said the passenger pigeon was at one time the most abundant bird in North America. Its demise, which began in late 1800s, changed the conservation movement in the U.S. This also spawned such measures as the Lacey Act of 1900, which essentially brought an end to market hunting, and the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, as well as generating support for hunting regulations at the time.
The passenger pigeon’s extinction is largely the result of unregulated subsistence and market hunting. It was killed in such large numbers that carcasses filled train cars. Even the young, called squabs, weren’t spared, according to Gross. When a nesting colony was located, squabs were captured and packed into barrels to be shipped to cities, where they were considered a delicacy.
And even when it was apparent the passenger pigeon was destined for extinction, Gross said there was a rush to keep killing the birds as people wanted mounted specimens for their collections.
The passenger pigeon isn’t the only extinct species that is on display at the Everhart Museum. The ornithology collection also contains mounts of the Carolina parakeet and two Ivory-billed woodpeckers.
The Carolina parakeet was declared extinct in 1939, and Pfeifer said it was killed for its vibrant green feathers, which were used for women’s hats. The Ivory-billed woodpecker was believed to have gone extinct in the mid-20th Century, although there were unverified accounts of sightings in Arkansas in 2005.
For Gross, who works with numerous threatened and endangered species in the state, the story of the passenger pigeon remains difficult to comprehend.
“It hits me pretty hard,” he said. “The most abundant bird in North America was wiped out in just a few decades through greed and foolishness. They just didn’t stop killing them.”
The passenger pigeon was about three times larger than a mourning dove and its diet consisted primarily of beechnuts, acorns and American chestnuts. Gross said there is evidence of the passenger pigeon existing in 44 counties in the state and the last reported sightings were in 1906.
“This was really a game bird that, had it persisted, would’ve been very important to this day,” Gross said. “There are so many lessons that can be learned from its extinction and it also emphasizes the important of keeping common birds, common.”