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ALEX COHEN, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY.

The passenger pigeon was once the most common bird in North America. The Smithsonian estimates that as many as five billion passenger pigeons filled the skies around the time Europeans discovered America.

By the mid-19th century, their numbers were declining sharply though. In September 1914, a passenger pigeon claimed by conservationists as the very last one in the species died at the Cincinnati Zoo. She even had a name - Martha.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And here's another thing you might not know about the passenger pigeon.

Mr. JON WUEPPER (Naturalist; Historian): It's beautiful. And I think both the male and the female had deep-red eyes.

BRAND: That's Jon Wuepper, a naturalist and historian. He has documented the decline of passenger pigeons. Wuepper scoured almost 60 years of newspaper articles and discovered what happened to the bird.

Mr. WUEPPER: I was just going through old newspapers to try to find references to my home township of Royalton Township in Berrien County, Michigan. I would come across various general history items, and all of a sudden, there'd be like a passenger pigeon reference.

ELIZABETH MEISTER: June 16th, 1842. We understand that the woods are alive with pigeons of Berrien. The trees on about 1,000 acres are covered with them and their thunder can be heard at the great distance.

Mr. WUEPPER: Of all the birds or animals listed in the county's newspapers, and I read from the 19th century, I probably read 90 percent of what survived of the Berrien County newspapers issue-by-issue. The passenger pigeon is definitely the most mentioned animal.

DAN COLLISON: April 19th, 1843. Warm weather has brought enumerable quantities of pigeons. The air is filled with them and in the morning, so densely, that they darkened the sun.

Mr. WUEPPER: There was a family in a log house, probably in the 1850s, and all of a sudden, the sky became dark. Pa came running and said that there's, you know, hordes of pigeons out there and they were just spent like two hours knocking them down and shooting them out of the sky.

And you can't really blame them. I mean, they're out there in the wilderness and there's just millions, if not billions of these things passing over you, just look like an endless resource.

MEISTER: May 6th, 1843. A gentleman from Berrien informs us that about three miles and a half from that village, the pigeons have taken possession of the woods about five miles square where they are nesting. And that there is from 10 to 75 nests on each tree. On approaching this back, one would imagine that he is near the falls of Niagara so incessant and loud as their thunder.

Mr. WUEPPER: Probably, the sportsman enjoyed at the most because it was easy kill and they tasted good.

MEISTER: Our old friend Hendrick(ph) killed 50 at four shots.

COLLISON: Only 50 at four shots? Dr. Richardson of our town last week killed 42 pigeons at one shot with a double barrel shotgun.

MEISTER: April 1st, 1854. Millions and millions of pigeons throng on the woods north of Berrien like the witch we have never before seen. Gunners are killing thousands and the graceless scamp was heard singing the following.

COLLISON: (singing) When I shoot my rifle clear to pigeons in the skies, I'll bid farewell to pork and beans and live on good potpies.

Mr. WUEPPER: Actually, I have a reference that I found and it gives a recipe for pigeon potpie. And that sounds pretty good actually.

COLLISON: April 28, 1850. Letters from Indiana complained that some of the pigeon roost covered the forest for miles destroying the timber. A letter from Laurel(ph) says...

MEISTER: I'm completely worn down. The pigeons are roosting all through our woods and the roost extends for miles. Large branches of trees are broken by them and the ground is strewn with eggs.

Mr. WUEPPER: Now, the breathing grounds, at least around these areas - southwest Michigan - were the large unbroken virgin forest that contained beech trees, sugar maples, and then oak and hickory. They particularly like to feed on acorns, beech seeds.

Once you get passed above the 1860s, a lot of the original forest is gone and you don't see the records of the pigeons actually staying the summer and nesting here. They passed through here in the spring and fall, but they're not mentioned anymore as nesting species.

COLLISON: October 5th, 1871. The pigeons are flying over in large droves. They appear to be leaving this part of the country in search of fields a new, and pastures green.

Mr. WUEPPER: It was a two-pronged problem unfortunately for the passenger pigeon. It tasted good, so there was a great market for them for pigeon pies. And just thousands upon thousands of barrels were packed and shipped on trains out from the northern Michigan in the later years. So in addition to the mass slaughter of the bird, there was this massive destruction of their habitat.

MEISTER: September 11th, 1873. Nearly every sportsman in town tried his luck at shooting pigeons this week. Pigeons are not reported very plenty this season.

Mr. WUEPPER: In the 19th century, conservation was just barely on the minds of anybody. And by the time they realized what was happening to the passenger pigeon, it was too late.

COLLISON: March 13th, 1878. The pigeons of the United States are about annihilated. Thousands of people have been engaged for years with nets in exterminating them. And many have made fortunes in the catch. The law in the state to protect them does not go far enough. At this season of the year, millions of pigeons used to visit our forests. Now, for many years, few have been seen.

Mr. WUEPPER: And certainly, the 1890s was the sad decade.

MEISTER: The American Ornithological Union 1895. The last known passenger pigeon recorded in Berrien County, Michigan occurred on 27 May 1894 when a flock of about 20 birds were observed in the southern part of the county, about the three miles from the Indiana Stateline.

Mr. WUEPPER: The significance of the extinction of the passenger pigeon was a wake-up call that, you know, even species in huge numbers can be just decimated and wiped out within, well, maybe a 150 years or 200 years in the case of pigeon. You know, we've got 6.5 billion people on the planet now. Hopefully, we can look at the passenger pigeon and maybe save ourselves if that's possible.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Jon Wuepper is a naturalist and historian at the Cass County Library in Michigan. Our story was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Long Haul Productions.

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