On his last journey, Meriwether Lewis stopped to recuperate from a serious bout of illness, and perhaps a mental breakdown, at Fort Pickering, a small army fort at the site of Chickasaw Bluffs (present-day Memphis, Tennessee). Lewis was on his way to Washington to answer serious allegations that had been made against him as Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. At some point, he decided not to go to New Orleans and catch a ship to the federal city. Instead, he would go east overland, via the Natchez Trace.
To get to the Natchez Trace, Lewis and his traveling companions followed an old Chickasaw trail called the Short-Cut Trail or Pigeon Roost Road. Today’s Highway 78, which runs from Memphis to Tupelo (the site of the main Chickasaw town) to Birmingham roughly follows this old route.
The countryside, however, was completely different from the pleasant rolling farmland you see when traveling Highway 78 today. Pigeon Roost Road was a winding, turning trail that crossed many creeks, lagoons, and rough cypress breaks. Like the Natchez Trace, it was infested with outlaws. The dense stands of old-growth cypress (standing as high as 170 feet and spanning a massive 10-15 feet in diameter) provided cover not only for outlaws, but for vast numbers of birds, especially passenger pigeons. It was said that millions of pigeons roosted there to breed, so many that their weight would break the limbs of these great trees.
Lewis might have imagined that the land would be cleared and deforested, but he certainly never have imagined that the passenger pigeon could ever go extinct. As late as the 1860s, they existed literally in the billions, one of the most numerous animals that has ever existed on earth. When a flock of passenger pigeons took flight, it could take two hours for it to pass overhead.
But like the vast army of buffalo in the west, these birds were hunted relentlessly, especially after the advent of the railroad made it possible to ship them by the boxcar in time to reach the eastern markets before spoiling. Retailing at one cent a bird, the passenger pigeons provided cheap protein for the poor in America’s growing cities.
The details of the bird’s demise are a heart-breaking commentary on the greed and short-sightedness of the human race. For example, an 1878 hunt at one nesting site in Michigan resulted in the killing of 50,000 birds per day for a solid five months until every individual had been tracked down and killed.
The result of the overhunting was a complete and catastrophic collapse of the pigeon population. The bird’s entire biology relied on its high population density. Conservationists trapped as many birds as they could and tried to reestablish the species in captivity, but the task proved impossible. The remaining birds would not reproduce under artificial conditions.
In the meantime, the slaughter of the wild birds continued until 1896, when the final 250,000-member flock of passenger pigeons was deliberately annihilated by sportsmen. The last verified sighting of a wild passenger pigeon came in Ohio in 1900. In 1914, the last passenger pigeon on earth, a bird named Martha, died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her body is preserved at the Smithsonian.
The Passenger Pigeon: Once There Were Billions is a good essay that imagines what it must have been like to experience the arrival of a flock of passenger pigeons and talks about why the passenger pigeon died while its closest relative, the mourning dove, continues to prosper.