Imagine the excitement a passenger pigeon sighting causes amongst pigeon lovers, the birding community and conservationists!
One of the most famous wildlife extinctions in our history is so notable because once upon a time, the passenger pigeon (scientific name Ectopistes migratorius) was one of the single most abundant species across the North American continent.
It is estimated that at its most populous, there were between 3 to 5 billion individual birds thriving.
It is also believed that in its heyday, the passenger pigeon was the most populous wild bird ever.
Unfortunately, the fortunes of this species changed during the early 20th century when it was hunted to extinction.
The last recorded live passenger pigeon was shot in Wisconsin in 1899.
The last known individual passenger pigeon, Martha, died in captivity in Cincinnati Zoo over one hundred years ago in 1914. She now lives in the Smithsonian Institute.
However, there are some keen enthusiasts out there who believe that the story of the passenger pigeon did not, in fact, end more than a century ago!
One of the most interesting quirks of this particular species is that over the years, there have been numerous reported sightings of the passenger pigeon, which had obviously led to debates on the credibility of these various claims.
Notable Passenger Pigeon Sighting Claims:
1. The Roosevelt Sighting
Surely, if an American president, especially one so much associated with a love of the natural world and possessing relevant knowledge claims to have sighted a passenger pigeon, it should be treated seriously.
In May 1907, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President, wrote to the renowned naturalist John Burroughs that he had sighted a small flock of passenger pigeons while staying at Pine Knot, the family cabin, in Albemarle County, Virginia.
Roosevelt expressed his own fallibility in identifying the birds and to this day, it can only be discussed rather than confirmed that indeed a US president saw passenger pigeons eight years after the last specimen had reportedly been shot and the species declared extinct in the wild.
2. The Hadley Sighting
In 1929, Michigan University bacteriologist Prof. Philip Hadley spotted what he believed to be a passenger pigeon and sent a report to the then eminent US journal Science, which gave it credence by publishing the news in its issue of 14 February 1930.
Hadley’s declaration also referenced other sightings by Kendrick Kimball (reported in the Detroit News, January 5, 1929), Robert H. Wright in Munissing, Michigan on June 10, 1929 and Dr. Samuel R Landes’ claim of a flock of 15 seen just north of Indianapolis.
It was hard to discredit these sightings out of hand as all of the observers had been avid hunters of the passenger pigeon before its extinction and were extremely familiar with the species.
3. The Peterson Sighting
One of the most notable examples of a passenger pigeon sighting took place in 1948 and was reported by ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson.
Peterson believes that he saw a passenger pigeon on a birdwatching expedition in Ohio. An experienced ornithologist and author of the Peterson Field Guide to Birds, Peterson’s sighting was corroborated by a number of other experienced birders who were in his company at the time.
Though there is no way to prove that they did see a passenger pigeon, the credibility of the group of observers makes it a compelling example.
4. The Greenberg Sighting
Another, more recent example of a passenger pigeon sighting took place in 2012, when naturalist Joel Greenberg reported seeing the species on a birdwatching trip in Indiana.
Another credible observer, Greenberg has written extensively about the history of the passenger pigeon and the circumstance of its extinction. He described seeing a bird that shared the distinctive silhouette and matched behaviors.
But once again, due to the brief nature of the sighting and the lack of photographic evidence, Greenberg’s claim is another difficult one to be able to verify, no matter how credible he appears to be.
5. Other Less Credible Sightings:
- Irene Llewellyn, September 1965 in Homer, Michigan.
- Stella Fenell, January 1966 in Park Ridge, New Jersey.
A popular resource for passenger pigeon sightings is Pam Rotella’s website, horicombirds.com.
People who believe they have spotted the species are invited to report it on the site’s dedicated page.
One of the most significant entries is from contributor Joe G from Southern Chester County Pennsylvania who believed he had a passenger pigeon in his backyard in August 2016.
The interesting aspect of Joe G’s sightings is that he has photographic evidence.
Although scrutinized, the reported sightings on Horicon.com have yet failed to receive the attention that would ratify the existence of living passenger pigeons.
The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback
Given the continued interest in the passenger pigeon, it is no surprise that there is a project to try to bring the species out of its presumed extinction.
The passenger pigeon has been identified as a species that might be able to help with conserving woodland biodiversity in the eastern United States, and in 2012 a project was conceived to try to execute de-extinction methods to reinstate the lost species.
The Revive And Restore project is using defined scientific methods and pathways in an attempt to resurrect the species. This is a path that consists of five stages that begin with research and ends with restoration. These stages are:
- in silico
- in vitro
- in vivo
- ex situ
- in situ.
Translated into actions this means:
- Comparing the genomes of a passenger pigeon with an existing band-tailed pigeon.
- Identifying key regions of the existing band-tailed pigeon genome that can be edited.
- Editing the germline of the band-tailed pigeon.
- Breeding a new generation of passenger pigeons in the controlled environment of scientific captivity.
- Eventually re-introducing the passenger pigeon into the wild through a strict process of conditioning and monitoring.
The project not only has the aim of repopulating the US with the passenger pigeon but also that it will provide the blueprint for other de-extinctions including the woolly mammoth.
Arguably the number one challenge faced is that there really is no concrete evidence to fall back on, as the passenger pigeon is no longer extant, there are no verified photographs of the sightings, and sadly no DNA samples of living individuals to be able to compare.
In most cases, sightings of the passenger pigeon have been reported by ornithologists and experienced or trained birdwatchers who have a deep and extensive knowledge of various avian species and are therefore able to accurately identify birds based on factors like shape, size, behavior and coloration.
In this sense, you can say that these individuals can be considered to be more credible in their reporting compared to a casual bird observer who might be less familiar with the nuances of species.
On the other hand, without the solid evidence needed, we can never be 100% sure of what has been seen. It is a fine balancing act between what is actually seen and what the imagination tries to convince us we have seen!
Context Of Passenger Pigeon Sightings
Something that also can’t be ignored is the individual context of each reported sighting.
For example, sightings that take place in regions where the passenger pigeon species was known to exist, like the eastern United States or southern Canada, for example, are always going to be taken more seriously than sightings in places that were never associated with the passenger pigeon in the first place.
In addition, sightings that take place within suitable habitats are always taken more seriously. These include mature forests with lots of mast-producing trees. Passenger pigeon claims that stem from these settings are taken more seriously than claims in urban and suburban environments.
Misidentification of Passenger Pigeons
The prospect of misidentification is, of course, a big factor in the passenger pigeon sighting phenomenon.
There are several species of active pigeons and doves that are very similar in appearance to the passenger pigeon, and these include the mourning dove, the white-crowned pigeon and the band-tailed pigeon.
Depending on how quickly the sighting occurs, any of these species can easily be mistaken for a passenger pigeon, especially if the observer in question is not the most familiar with their precise distinguishing features.
Fact or Fiction?
It would seem it’s a question of both.
Future sightings of passenger pigeons may turn up a case that can be verified by science or a biologically engineered bird may appear first.
Whatever, it seems like the story of the passenger pigeon has not ended yet.