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A Review-History of the Passenger Pigeon of Manitoba

by George E. Atkinson

MHS Transactions, Series 1, No. 68
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If we were at all inclined to doubt the fact that in nature’s economy one immutable law is that the stronger shall prey upon the weaker or that despite alleged enlightenment and advanced appreciation of moral responsibility, man, who is made head of creation, has in his consideration of all other forms of life failed to rise above the animal nature of making all weaker and less resourceful creatures subservient to his dominating will, to kill at his pleasure, to enslave for his convenience or to deny the right to life for the gratification of an autocratic whim. If, I repeat, we were in doubt that these conditions were existent we would but have to peruse for a time the natural history of the world for conclusive evidence to dispel all doubt.

Yet while the biological history of any country records the decrease and disappearance of many forms of life due to just or unjust circumstances, it remains for the historical records of North America to reveal a career of human selfishness which may be considered the paragon. Within four centuries of North American civilization (or modified barbarism) we can be credited with the wiping into the past of at least three species of animal life originally so phenomenally abundant and so strikingly characteristic in themselves as to evoke the wonders and amazement of the entire world. And sad to relate, so effectual has been the extermination that it is doubtful if our descendants a few generations hence will be able to learn anything whatever about them save through the medium of books. While herein again we shall be just subjects of their censure for having manifestly failed to preserve in history’s archives any material amount of specific information.

The earlier settlers landing upon the Atlantic coast between Newfoundland and the Carolinas found them in possession of armies of great auks and the few scraps of authenticated history which we now possess disclose a most iniquitous course of wanton slaughter and destruction which ended in the complete extinction of the bird over sixty years ago. Yet in the face of this destruction there remain but four mounted specimens and two eggs in the collections of North America today while but 70 skins remain in the collections of the entire world.

If possible more ruthless and inhuman was the carnage waged against the noble buffalo, the countless thousands of which roaming over virgin prairies excited the wonder and amazement of the entire sporting and scientific world, and which, today, are represented only in zoological parks where all individuality will eventually be lost in domestication. While the greater portion of our literature dealing with them is so exaggerated and so fantastically interwoven with fiction with a view of creating author heroes that its scientific value is almost nil.

Coincident almost with the passing of the buffalo we have to record the decline and fall of the passenger pigeon, the subject of this paper. A bird which aroused the excitement and wonder of the entire world during the first half of the last century because of its phenomenal numbers.

A bird also which stood out unique in character and individuality among the 300 described pigeons of the world and which won the admiration of every ornithologist who was fortunate enough to have experience with it living or dead. Yet withal not exempt from the oppression of its human foe who has been instrumental through interference with its breeding and feeding grounds and through a continued persecution and ruthless slaughter for the market, in reducing the species almost beyond hope of salvation which now rests upon the possibility of a few isolated pairs unauthentically recorded, still remaining which may be able to perpetuate the species. Should these fail the species is doomed to be one of the past.

The passenger pigeon, the species under observation, was first described under the genus Columba or Type Pigeons, but subsequently Swainson separated it from these and placed it under a genus Exctopistes because of the greater length of wing and tail.

Generically named Ecopistes—meaning moving about or wandering, and specifically named Migratoria, meaning migratory, we have a technical name implying not only a species migrating annually to and from their breeding ground but one given to moving about from season to season selecting the most congenial environment for both breeding and feeding.

Audubon especially remarked of this species that the food supply was a much greater factor in regulating their movements than was the temperature and that they would appear in one district for a time and disappear from it as soon as the food supply became inadequate, and we can readily appreciate how rapidly the supply would become exhausted in the most productive districts with the demand upon it necessary to supply the immense multitudes of the birds recorded for the first half of the last century.

It would appear that the birds followed the line of the Mississippi Valley, spreading eastward to the line of the Alleghany mountains, northward into Ontario and up the Red river Valley to the very shores of Hudson’s Bay, selecting locations for nesting accommodation for colonies aggregating from thousands to millions as the food supply guaranteed. With all the knowledge we have possessed of the inestimable multitudes which existed during the early part of the last century and with their decline begun and noted generally in the later sixties and early seventies, we still find that no steps whatever were taken to prevent their possible depletion and few records of any value are made of the continuance or speed of this decrease and not until the last decade of the century do we awake to the fact that the pigeons are gone beyond the possibility of a return in any numbers. When a few years later reports are made that pigeons still exist and are again increasing scientific investigation shows that the Mourning Dove has been mistaken for the pigeon or that the Bandtailed pigeon of California is taken for the old Passenger pigeon and so we have continued since the early nineties investigating rumours of their appearance from all over America, North and South, and the West Indian islands, but all reports point us to the past for the pigeon and some other species under suspicion.

I doubt very much if the historian desirous of compiling any historical work would find himself confronted with such a decided blank in historical records during an important period than that confronted in the compilation of a historical record of the Passenger pigeon within any district which it formerly frequented during the period from about 1870, when the decline was first noted, to 1890, when the birds had practically passed away. In this matter Mr. J. H. Fleming, of Toronto, in writing me, says: “The pigeon seems to have gone off like dynamite. Nobody expected it and nobody had prepared a series of skins,” and to this I can add that no one seems to have made any series of records of the birds from year to year. Since their disappearance, however, things have changed; everybody is alert for pigeons, and everybody has a theory, but beyond affording subject of social conversation or awakening a recital of old pigeon experiences from the old timers, these rumors and theories seem to return to the winds from whence they came.

The latest theory advanced to me by a correspondent is the possibility of some disturbance of the elements in the shape of a cyclone, or a storm striking a migrating host in crossing the Gulf of Mexico and destroying them almost completely. This is a plausible theory but I am unable to conceive how such immense hosts of pigeons as are recorded up to 1865 could possibly have met with sudden disaster in this manner even in the center of the gulf without leaving some wreckage to tell the story and such is not recorded. ... Personally I am inclined to cherish my original contentions that the continued disturbances of the breeding and feeding grounds, both by the slaughter of the birds for market and by the dissipating of the original immense colonies by the clearing of the hardwood and pine forests of the United States and Eastern Canada compelling these sections of the main column to travel further in search of congenial environment, curtailing the breeding season and I have no doubt frequently preventing many from breeding for several seasons. While the persistent persecution and destruction for the market was in no way proportionately lessened in the vicinity of these smaller colonies as long as a sufficient number of the birds remained to make the traffic profitable. It can at once be seen that this continued drain upon these smaller colonies when other conditions were becoming more difficult for the birds to contend with would be instrumental in depleting the entire former main column to a point when netting and shooting were no longer profitable and the remnant of these colonies having to run a gauntlet of persecution over their entire course of migration to and from winter quarters and to such proceeding there could be but one result, and that the one we now face, extermination.

Of those records made during the pigeon’s day, as we might call it, the earliest we have are those made by a Mr. T. Hutchins, who was a Hudson’s Bay Company trader operating for some 25 years in the district adjacent to Hudson’s Bay, during which time he made copious notes of the birds frequenting that district, which were afterwards published by Pennant in his Arctic Zoology in 1785. He says in part:

The first pigeon I shall take note of is one I received at Severn in 1771, and having sent it home to Mr. Pennant, he informed me that it was the migratoria species. They are very numerous inland and visit our settlement in the summer. They are plentiful about Moose Factory and inland, where they breed, choosing an arboreous situation. The gentlemen number them among the many delicacies the Hudson’s Bay affords our tables. It is a hardy bird, continuing with us until December. In summer their food is berries, but after these are covered with snow they feed upon the juniper buds. They lay two eggs and are gregarious. About 1756 these birds migrated as high as York Factory, but remained only two days.

In a report issued 1795 Samuel Hearne also reports the birds abundant inland from the southern portion of Hudson’s Bay, but states that though good eating, they are seldom fat.

The first provincial record, that made by Sir John Richardson in 1827, in which he says: “A few hordes of Indians, who frequent the low floods districts at the south end of Lake Winnipeg, subsist principally on the pigeons during the period when the sturgeon fishing is unproductive, and the wild rice is still unripened, but further north the birds are too few in numbers to furnish material diet.”

I presume he means further up Lake Winnipeg’s shores, since Hutchins and Hearne both reported them common nearer Hudson’s Bay.

From this time until the later fifties and the early sixties no records are available for the present province of Manitoba, but it will not be out of place here, for the sake of comparison as well as for the benefit of those of us today who, having heard some of the stories of our fathers and grandfathers of the phenomenal pigeon flights and rookeries, and because of not having seen, are unable to conceive of such stories being other than the fanciful yarns of a declining intellect, to record some of these seemingly incredulous and exaggerated records by those devoted two ornithological pioneers of America, Wilson and Audubon. ...

[Atkinson then quotes at length from Audubon and the American naturalist Alexander Wilson, including Wilson’s description of a flock of over two million pigeons that was a mile wide.]

When I decided to attempt the preparation of a review of the history of the pigeon in Manitoba, I felt that having had practically no experience with the bird myself I should have to depend upon the reports of representative pioneers of the country for my facts as to the numbers of the birds formerly found here, and the period of their decline and disappearance. I accordingly drafted a series of questions which I submitted to these gentlemen, and I have to tender them all my sincere thanks, as well as that of the scientific world, for the ready responses and the conciseness of the information received.

I shall quote here from the replies received.

One of the earliest residents I find is Mr. George A. Garrioch, of Portage la Prairie, who says:

I was born in Manitoba, and came to Portage la Prairie in about 1853. I was then only about six years old, and do not remember very much about the pigeons at that time, but as long as I can remember they were very numerous.

They passed over every spring, usually during the mornings, in very large flocks, following each other in rapid succession.

I do not think they bred in any numbers in the province, as I only remember seeing one nest; this contained two eggs.

The birds to my recollection were most numerous in the fifties, and the decline was noticed in the later sixties and continued until the early eighties, when they had disappeared. I have observed none since until last year when I am positive I saw a single male bird south of the town of Portage la Prairie.

Mr. Angus Sutherland of Winnipeg in reply to my interrogation, states:

I was born in the present city of Winnipeg and have lived here for over fifty years. The wild pigeons were very numerous as far back as I can remember. They frequented the mixed woods about the city, and while undoubtedly many birds bred here, I remember no extensive breeding colonies in the province, and believe the great majority passed farther north to breed. About 1870 the decrease in their numbers was most pronouncedly manifest, this decline continuing until the early eighties, when they had apparently all disappeared, and I have seen only occasional birds since, and none of late years.

Mr. W. J. McLean, formerly of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and at present a resident of Winnipeg, sends me some valuable information which supports my contention regarding the influence of food supply. He states:

I came to the Red River Settlement in 1860 and found the pigeons very numerous on my arrival and that they had been equally numerous for some years previous. The birds came in many thousands and great numbers of them bred in the northeastern portion of the province through the district north of Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, where the cranberry and blueberry are abundant, and these fruits constitute their chief food supply as they remain on the bushes and retain much of their food properties until well on into the summer following their growth. They also feed largely on acorns wherever they abound. The first decline I noticed was about the early seventies and 1877 was the last occasion on which I saw any numbers of the birds, when I encountered large flocks of them passing northwesterly from White Sand river near Fort Pelly. This was on a dull drizzling day about the middle of May, and I presume they were then heading toward the Barren grounds district, where the blueberry and cranberry are again very abundant.

Mr. E. H. G. G. Hay, formerly police magistrate of Portage la Prairie, now of St. Andrew’s, reports:

I came to the country in June, 1861, and found that the pigeons were abundant previous to my arrival. To give you an idea of their numbers a Mr. Thompson, of St. Andrew’s, some mornings caught with a net about 10 feet square as many as eighty dozen, and in the spring of 1864 I fired into a flock as they rose from the ground and picked up seventeen birds.

The birds were mostly migratory in what is now known as Manitoba and mostly all would go further north after the seeding season, and I never heard of any extensive rookeries such as one recorded for the east and south. The few that bred here frequented mixed poplar and spruce. They seemed most numerous in the sixties and began to show signs of decreasing about 1869 or 70 and by 1875 they had all disappeared and I have only seen an occasional bird since.

Mr. William Clark, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Winnipeg, informs me:

The first place I remember having seen pigeons in Manitoba was at White Horse plains (St. Francois Xavier) in 1865, where they were very numerous, many of them breeding in the oak trees in that district.

Two years after this I went to Oak Point on Lake Manitoba, but do not remember the birds there nor since.

Mr. Charles Boultbee, of MacGregor, Man., replies as follows:

I have resided in Manitoba since 1872 and have taken pigeons as far north as Fort Pelly in the fall of 1874, but know nothing of them previously. In our district they usually made their appearance in the fall and fed upon the grain. I never found them nor did I ever hear of them breeding in the province in any numbers.

They continued fairly numerous until about 1882, at which time we had to drive them from the grain stooks, but they then disappeared and only stragglers have been noted since.

None of the flocks noted in Manitoba in any way approached those recorded for the east and south for numbers.

There is no doubt that many other reports could have been secured, but as all seem to tend toward the one conclusion, I shall save time and space by summarizing that information at hand.

Some months ago I made a statement in an article written for local interest to the effect that Manitoba never was the home of the wild pigeon. By this I meant that because of unfavourable breeding and feeding conditions within the province, only the smallest percentage of the enormous flocks recorded for the south and east could possibly exist here. The records here collected support me in this contention so far as that proportion of the province west of the Red River is concerned, but the record of Sir John Richardson tends to show that favourable conditions must have existed immediately south of lake Winnipeg, through what he calls a low lying district, and where we can assume cranberries and blueberries were abundant, as they were through the district subsequently reported by Mr. McLean to the east and northeast of this district. There is no doubt that the difference in the character of the country east of the Red River from that of the west would present more favourable conditions for the birds, but with all it has not in one case been shown that the birds nested in colonies approaching the size of the famous eastern and southern roosts, and reports seem rather to show that those which bred within the province were more generally scattered over the country, at the same time being numerous enough to guarantee the shooter and the netter to pursue a profitable traffic in the birds. All evidence seems to show that large numbers passed through the province to and from the northern breeding ground, possibly that recorded by Hutchens near Hudson Bay and westward, and that they were excessively numerous up to about 1870, when they began to decrease. This decline continued until the middle eighties, when they were practically all gone, and with the exception of a few stragglers none have been seen since while as to the latest authenticated records, I quote from notes in my former pamphlet on “Rare Bird Records”:

The beautiful specimen I have been able to secure for illustration herewith is loaned me by Mr. Dan Smith of Winnipeg, who shot it in St. Boniface, southeast of the Cathedral, in the fall of 1893, and so far as I have been able to discover is the last authentic record for the vicinity of Winnipeg, while the only specimen I was ever privileged to handle in the flesh in Manitoba was collected at Winnipegosis on April 10, 1896, and sent me to be mounted. It was a male specimen in the pink of condition in every way. No other specimen was noted with it, and no authentic records have been made in Manitoba since then.

I have since that time expended much effort in following up rumors of the bird’s presence in various districts with a view to locating a breeding pair. Not alone have my desires been to secure and preserve a skin or mounted specimen, but with the possibility of locating a breeding bird and securing the bird alive or securing the eggs while fresh to assist in the salvation of the pigeon in a partially domesticated state, since the only specimens now living in captivity are those owned by Professor Whitman, of the University of Chicago, who in writing me says:

My stock seems to have come to a complete standstill, having raised no young for the last four years. The weakness is due to long inbreeding, as my birds are from a single pair captured about 25 years ago in Wisconsin. I have long tried to secure new stock, but have been unsuccessful. A single pair would enable me to save them, for they breed well in confinement.

I have crossed them with ringdoves, and still have three hybrids but as these are infertile there is no hope of even preserving these half-breeds alive. Of all the wild pigeons in the world the passenger pigeon is my favourite. No other pigeon combines so many fine qualities in form, color, strength and perfection of wing power.

I am enabled, through the kindness of Prof. Whitman, to exhibit a photograph of one of his younger birds taken in his aviary in Chicago.

Page revised: 21 June 2014

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