I ran across a reference to passenger pigeons the other day. I didn’t recall ever hearing a reference to them being in North Dakota, so I pulled my copy of Robert Stewart’s Breeding Birds of North Dakota off the shelf. It is the best source of information I have found on breeding birds of the state.
Stewart cites several records applicable to the species breeding in North Dakota. Alexander Henry the Younger observed them in “extraordinary numbers” in Pembina County in 1804. Stewart also cites historical references from along the Missouri River, mouth of the Yellowstone, near what is now New Salem, and the Turtle Mountains. The most recent record, 1892 was of a large flock near Larimore.
One of the references from the summer of 1873 is particularly informative. The citation reads in part: “During the latter part of May, vast numbers were observed in the timber along the Red River for many miles from Pembina southward. For several days the immense flocks were almost continually in view. Many nested in this region; females ready to lay were found, and nests were observed during the greater part of June. The nests were usually in the horizontal forks of branches of small trees and saplings, generally 10 or 12 feet from the ground.”
Of course the real story on passenger pigeons is their historical abundance in North America and the subsequent early 1900′s extinction. According to the Encyclopedia Smithsonian, passenger pigeons historically numbered between 3 and 5 billion and accounted for between 25 and 40% of the total bird population in the U.S.
The principle range of the passenger pigeon was the mixed hardwood forests of eastern North America. Few were reported as far west as the Great Plains. Their numbers, of course, are legendary. Many of you have heard reference to flocks so large that they darkened the noonday sun, and of a single flock flying over a town for several days. But the book closed on the species in 1914 when Martha, the last if her kind, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Once again I find myself longing for the ability to time travel. What a sight those birds must have been.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
Stewart, Robert. 1975. Breeding Birds of North Dakota. Tri-College Center for
Environmental Studies. Fargo, ND.
Encyclopedia Smithsonian (online)
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