The Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve
"At the time of Martha’s death, the depletion of so much abundance in such a short time was difficult for people to accept and explain. There were the deniers who claimed the hordes of pigeons all moved to South America where they changed their appearance to elude their pursuers. Some, like Henry Ford, accepted their extinction but thought the birds had drowned in the Pacific Ocean as they fled to freedom."
-from "Fate of the Passenger Pigeon" environment 360
Once common and abundant in Buffalo
"Why", you might be asking, "is an extinct bird being described as an "iconic species" of the Times Beach Nature Preserve?"
The answer is that before its extinction in September 1914, the Passenger pigeon was not only abundant in our region, but it was one if not the most abundant species of birds that were ever present on the planet. At the beginning of the 19th century it has been estimated that 5 billion or more individual passenger pigeons representing perhaps 40% of the entire North American bird population existed. Western New York and Southern Ontario were a critical part of the range of these birds. There are accounts in our region of huge migratory flocks of these birds flying over head and literally blocking the sun for days at a time.
Stories of these enormous flocks of birds of up to 3.5 billion at a time, stretching for hundreds of miles crossing Lake Ontario, the Niagara, and Lake Erie are not uncommon. One can easily imagine these giant migratory flocks of birds passing over the area that we now recognize as Times Beach.
It took less than 100 years for these abundant birds to go from billions to none. The last 20 years of the Passenger pigeon included many observations of the bird and its decline in our region.
Why did it go extinct?
There are a number of reasons.
The birds woodland habitat which provided nesting habitat and food sources including acorns, beechnuts and wild fruits rapidly disappeared during the 19th century. During that time much of our landscape in WNY and Southern Ontario was converted by timber harvest and agriculture.
Western New York farming at one time was considered the breadbasket of the world- which both drove our 19th century "golden age" economy and the building of the Buffalo Harbor including the areas around Times Beach. Most of our WNY forested lands were harvested and turned to farmland in the mid to late 19th century. Today there are only a few rare stands of virgin forest to be found.
During the early to mid 19th century, Grand Island and the areas of the Tonawanda's were the world's first industrial clear cut forests. The need for lumber and the exploitation of our rich oak forests contributed greatly to the loss of the Passenger pigeon.
Hunted for feathers and food
Native Americans, European settlers, and then the big populations of the growing cities of the east and midwest ate Passenger Pigeons. It was one of the most abundant protein food sources. Hunting was unrestricted and millions of these birds were shot and ate, the feathers used for bedding, and then they were gone.
There are some reasons to believe that one of the final blows to the declining Passenger Pigeon was disease. However do to the lack of scientific capacity at the time of the extinction, this is in the realm of theory.
Martha 2014: the year of the passenger pigeon
The Guardian 13 January 2014
10 Facts About the Passenger Pigeon-The Rise and Demise of the Most Populous Bird that Ever Lived (about)
Fate of the Passenger Pigeon Looms as a Somber Warning
environment 360 28 august 2014