It's Too Late
The Eastern Forests Ancient hardwood forests stretched for thousands of square miles in eastern North America. Massive oaks, chestnuts, hickories, walnuts and beech trees dominated, some reaching heights of more than 100 feet, with trunks 20 or more feet in circumference. Giant hemlocks and many kinds of pine dominated some areas. The passenger pigeon was the most abundant denizen of these forests, and its range extended from southern Canada, New England and the Great Lakes west to the Great Plains and south to Virginia. The slim bird was somewhat smaller than the familiar rock dove or common pigeon found in cities worldwide, with a long, pointed tail. The male's plumage was beautiful; his back, wings and head were bluish‑gray with black streaks and spots, which contrasted with a rich, pinkish tinge on his lower throat. His breast feathers became paler on the belly, and a patch of pink or purple‑pink iridescence shone at his neck. His eyes were bright red surrounded by purplish skin, and his legs and feet were red (Goodwin 1983). The female was a duller version of the male, browner gray above, light gray on the breast, with a smaller iridescent pink patch on the neck, more profuse black spots on the wings and gray skin surrounding her orange eyes (Goodwin 1983).
This is the only pigeon — living or extinct — that flocked and nested in vast numbers, darkening the sky during their migrations. When Europeans first encountered passenger pigeons, they were dumbfounded by their numbers. One immigrant, Pehr Kalm, described their passage in the spring of 1749: "on the 11th, 12th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 22nd of March . . . there came from the north an incredible multitude of these pigeons to Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Their number, while in flight, extended three or four English miles in length, and more than one such mile in breadth, and they flew so closely together that the sky and the sun were obscured by them, the daylight becoming sensibly diminished by their shadow" (Fuller 1987). When the pigeons landed on trees, their weight was sometimes so great that not only would large limbs break off, but entire trees would topple. Prior to settlement of the continent by Europeans, as many as 5 billion birds inhabited Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana alone (Blaugrund and Stebbins 1993).
Passenger pigeons were migratory, as their scientific name, Ectopistes migratorius, suggested, but not in the manner of most birds, who migrate from an ancestral nesting area to an ancestral wintering area. Instead, immense columns of birds flew as a unit at speeds estimated as high as 60 miles per hour in wide areas in search of nut trees and seeds. John James Audubon, famed illustrator of American birds, described flights in the 1830s that covered the sky for days in some areas, while in other years, none would be seen in the same area (Blaugrund and Stebbins 1993). The forests that once stretched nearly unbroken across eastern North America were crucial to the survival of the passenger pigeon flocks. Nut trees (oaks, hickories and beeches) produced large crops only every few years. In order to locate adequate feeding supplies, the pigeons covered great distances.
John James Audubon visited a roost in Kentucky accompanied by some pigeon hunters in 1831:
Many trees two feet in diameter, I observed, were broken off at no great distance from the ground; and the branches of many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if the forest had been swept by a tornado. Every thing proved to me that the number of birds resorting to this part of the forest must be immense beyond conception . . . Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of 'Here they come!' The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea passing through the rigging of a close‑reefed vessel. I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole men. The birds continued to pour in . . . The pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads, were formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading (Schorger 1973).
Once they located a forest with abundant food, they nested in huge aggregations. One colony in Wisconsin was estimated to cover more than 750 square miles, with 136 million nesting birds (Wilcove 1991). Audubon wrote of their courtship, "the tenderness and affection displayed by these birds toward their mates are in the highest degree" and painted two birds "billing" for his Birds of America series (Blaugrund and Stebbins 1993). Some described their courtship songs as a series of bell‑like notes (Fuller 1987).
Their nests, constructed of loose sticks, held their single white egg. A tree could hold many nests, which the birds placed on strong branches close to the trunk. The flocks rarely nested in the same area two years running, and dispersed as soon as nesting was over; this may have been to prevent natural predators from increasing enough to have a serious impact on their numbers (Wilcove 1991). Also, their food supply tended to be abundant only every few years in a given area. These great colonies made easy targets for legions of meat and market hunters, beginning in the 1600s. By the 18th century, naturalists began to observe that nesting colonies were disappearing; the last great nesting in New England took place near Lunenburg, Massachusetts, in 1851 (Wilcove 1991). By the 1860s, the large flocks had been hunted out of coastal New York State and Pennsylvania. The few laws that were enacted to protect them in the Northeast were not enforced (Wilcove 1991). Season after season, pigeon hunters killed millions of these birds, destroying one colony after another.
Neltje Blanchan, in the 1904 book Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted, documented that unlimited netting, even during the nesting season, had resulted in sending more than 1 million pigeons to market from a single roost at the height of the hunting; an equal number of birds were wounded or left starving, helpless, naked chicks behind. Hunters shipped 100 thousand pounds of pigeons to market from a nesting colony near Grand Rapids, Michigan (Wilcove 1991). Audubon and other observers of the time described the brutal hunting methods: young birds were knocked out of their nests with poles, and captive pigeons, whose eyelids had been sewn shut, were tethered to lure wild pigeons to the ground where they were netted (Wilcove 1991). Nesting trees were cut down or set afire, and sulphur was burned under nesting trees to kill the birds (Wilcove 1991). Blanchan (1904) described the glut of pigeons at markets as so great that the price per barrel scarcely paid for their transportation. The pigeon meat was often fed to hogs.
By the late 1800s, it had become evident to some that the killing was having a disastrous effect on the passenger pigeons. The warnings went unheeded, however. In Ohio, a bill submitted in 1857 to protect the passenger pigeon received the following report from a Select Committee of the Senate: "The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here to‑day and elsewhere to‑morrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced" (Hornaday 1913).
The final and precipitous decline of passenger pigeons began in the 1870s, a decade which began with some large flocks still attempting to nest in the Great Lakes area. In 1878, naturalists estimated that some 50 million pigeons survived, but with continued heavy hunting, only one large nesting colony in Wisconsin remained in 1887 (Wilcove 1991). This colony dispersed within two weeks after beginning to nest when hunters began shooting at them (Wilcove 1991). By the 1890s, only scattered individual pigeons – who were apparently unable to breed or forage successfully – remained. In 1892, one observer noted, "The extermination of the passenger pigeon has progressed so rapidly during the past twenty years that it looks now as if their total extermination might be accomplished within the present century" (Blanchan 1904). This statement proved correct. The incredible wildlife spectacle that flights of billions of passenger pigeons presented, ended completely on March 24, 1900, when the last wild bird was killed in Pike County, Ohio (Wilcove 1991).
The reason for the sudden crash in passenger pigeon numbers has been the subject of controversy in the years since. Two ornithologists from the University of Minnesota, David E. Blockstein and Harrison B. Tordoff, believe during the last 20 years prior to its wild extinction, hunters were able to disturb or destroy virtually every nesting colony. Each year, the adult birds that were able to escape previous hunting and attempt breeding were harassed or chased off the nest, or their fledglings were killed (Wilcove 1991). The adults not killed were relatively long-lived, averaging a lifespan of about 20 years, but because their numbers were not replaced by succeeding generations, when they died off, the species became extinct (Wilcove 1991). Blockstein and Tordoff noted some Passenger Pigeons nested in small groups, escaping the attention of hunters, but they conjectured that without the protection provided by large colonies, these birds rarely succeeded in producing fledgling chicks, and were easy targets for predators (Wilcove 1991). This explanation seems logical, and clearly, the birds were unable to survive in small, scattered groups, dependent on a large colony for successful reproduction. Other factors may also have entered in. It may be that only in the presence of large numbers of their own kind was instinctive breeding behavior stimulated.
A captive passenger pigeon named Martha, about 29-years-old and the last of her species, died at 1 p.m. on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. This is perhaps the only species for which the exact minute of its extinction is known (Fuller 1987).
Logging and settlement of the eastern hardwood forests destroyed forever the ancient habitat of these lovely pigeons. Even if the passenger pigeon was somehow recreated, the huge expanses of nut and seed-bearing trees it required have since been cut. More than 99 percent of virgin woodland in the East has been logged, first by settlers, and later by commercial loggers. The colonists of New England, after destroying the forests, found farming the rocky soil difficult and unproductive. The short growing season, often interrupted by frosts, further limited agriculture there. Most of these farms were abandoned, and today, second-growth forest covers the region. However, it is composed of different species of trees than the original old-growth forest and is far poorer in wildlife.
The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) once comprised a third of eastern hardwood forests; a huge tree 100 feet tall with a spreading canopy, it had girths up to 12 feet (Jonas 1993) and produced bountiful crops of chestnuts. American chestnuts grew east of the Mississippi River from Maine south to Georgia. Of the 12 species of chestnut trees worldwide, the American was known for yielding the tastiest nuts (Jonas 1993). After heavy logging, older trees became confined to wilderness areas and towns, where they were greatly admired as shade trees. In 1904, the spores of a fungus known as chestnut blight were accidentally introduced to the country, probably on seedlings of imported Chinese chestnut trees (Jonas 1993). The blight destroyed the remaining chestnuts in the eastern forests, leaving only stumps. These stumps still sprout shoots that grow up to 20 feet until they, too, succumb to the blight (Jonas 1993). Only a few unblighted American chestnut trees remain in the country. On the West Coast, a small number of the trees were planted out of their natural range, and the blight did not reach them (Jonas 1993). Progress is being made in breeding disease-resistant strains of this tree (see Forests chapter and Projects section).
Another eastern hardwood, the stately American elm (Ulmus americana), which reaches heights of 60 to 120 feet, has a slim, straight trunk and a broad, graceful crown. It is also nearly extinct; it was attacked by a fungal infection known as Dutch elm disease, which is gradually killing off these trees. First seen in 1930, the disease spread west. It is still in the process of eliminating trees throughout their range in North America from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, south to Florida and west to Texas (Jonas 1993). A disease-resistant strain of this tree has also been bred, and the trees are being distributed for free by a nonprofit organization (see Forests chapter and Projects section).
American beeches (Fagus grandifolia) were perhaps the most important food tree for wildlife, producing massive amounts of beech nuts on which passenger pigeons, wild turkeys, black bears and other wildlife fed. At 50 to 70 feet tall, beeches have short, wide trunks that begin branching 10 feet from the ground and form enormous, wide crowns (Jonas 1993). The species is still fairly widespread, but old American beeches, which can live 400 years and grow to enormous girths, are extremely rare in woodland settings where they have been logged out.
Ironically, the colonists could have lived well off the land they found if they had not destroyed both the forests and much of the wildlife within a few centuries. The abundant nuts produced by hardwoods, which had nourished the passenger pigeons, also provided food to Native Americans. Many tribes had learned to remove the tannin from acorns so it could be ground into nutritious high-protein flour. Beechnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, hickory nuts, wild fruits and seeds provided excellent food for people as well as wildlife.
European settlers destroyed this rich ecosystem by commercializing the resources, turning ancient forests into short-term logging profits and wild birds, deer and furbearers into commodities. Had another road been taken, the natural environment would have endured with ample resources for all to live on. Many native tribes had cleared some forests for agriculture, but the vast majority remained in their natural state. Settlers, later supported by government policy, claimed ownership of the East and then proceeded to oust native peoples or relegate them to tiny reservations. This resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands of natives and the extinction of many tribes.
The new Americans, in adopting the European approach to nature, tamed the wilderness and began a program of eliminating natural predators. They considered the reverence with which Native Americans had treated all living things to be a weakness. At the time of European colonization in the 17th century, almost no natural forests remained in Western Europe. Large predators had been eliminated from most of Western Europe, and most wildlife had been crowded out, killed off or confined to private estates where the animals were considered the property of landowners, providing food and sport to the upper classes. Moreover, this wildlife was hardly wild, but semi-tame. Deer lacked predators, the woods on estates were stocked with game birds and the streams with salmon and trout by gamekeepers. The vast majority of European settlers came from the lower and middle classes; they had previously been denied the right to hunt and were eager to do so with abandon. This was another motivation for the relentless slaughter that decimated wildlife during this period.
Benjamin Franklin hoped to make the wild turkey the official symbol of the United States. When colonists arrived, the species was abundant in eastern forests. Uncontrolled hunting and the cutting of forests eliminated these birds from state after state: Connecticut by 1813, Massachusetts by 1851, New York in the mid‑1800s, South Dakota by 1875, Ohio by 1880, Wisconsin by 1881, Michigan by 1897, Illinois by 1903, and Iowa by 1907 (Burger 1978, Peters and Lovejoy 1990). Fortunately, the species was not destroyed altogether, and it has been reintroduced into many parts of its original range through transplants from remnant populations.
Once the eastern forests echoed with the howls of gray wolves (Canis lupus), common throughout the continent except the Southeast, where the smaller red wolf (Canis rufus) roamed. Both these wolves were deliberately persecuted into extinction by colonists who placed bounties on their heads, effectively eliminating them from the wild in the eastern United States prior to the 20th century (see Persecution and Hunting chapter). Seven races of the gray wolf are now extinct, bountied and poisoned by settlers. Around 1911, the Newfoundland race, Canis lupus beothucus, was the first to become extinct. This pure white, large wolf had a scientific name inspired by the Beothuk Indian tribe of Newfoundland; both the wolf and the tribe were exterminated by Europeans (Day 1981).
The red wolf became extinct in the wild in the 1970s, after centuries of persecution and habitat loss. Two subspecies, the Florida black wolf (Canis rufus floridanus) and the Texas red wolf (Canis rufus rufus), are extinct, and only one race survives. The last members of the species were taken into captivity and bred successfully. A reintroduction program in portions of its original range has brought the species back, and about 100 red wolves now live in the wild. The cruelty with which the gray wolf was eliminated is described in detail in the Persecution and Hunting chapter. Another predator once common in these forests north of Florida was the Eastern cougar (Felis concolor couguar). It was also bountied and hunted until it became extinct throughout the eastern United States.
In the northern woods, eastern subspecies of the American bison, elk, caribou, moose and white‑tailed deer were extremely common. The hunting by Native Americans armed with bows and arrows did not, apparently, cause declines. The guns brought by Europeans, however, decimated their numbers. An unrestricted slaughter of these ungulates went on for centuries. The white-tailed deer became endangered, disappearing from the eastern forests, first from the vicinity of towns and habitations, then from wilderness areas. The other ungulates died out altogether in New England and the middle Atlantic area. The Eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) became extinct. One cause for the disappearance of this huge member of the deer family was hunting to obtain its teeth, which a private organization, the Fraternal Order of the Elks, used as watch‑chain insignia (Day 1981). Not only were these animals hunted for food and sale in meat markets by the colonists, but an active export trade in deer and elk skins sprang up. Records show an average of 100,000 of these skins exported to England each year between 1778 and 1808 (Poland 1892). Several small populations of reintroduced elk inhabit Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Hunting caused the extinction of the Eastern bison (Bison bison pennsylvanicus) by 1800. This race of bison was larger than the plains bison and very dark; some of the bulls were coal black with grizzly white hair around the nose and eyes (Allen 1942). The last herd of Eastern bison was slaughtered in Union County, Pennsylvania in the winter of 1799 to 1800, as the animals huddled helplessly in the deep snow; the last individuals of this race were killed near Charleston, West Virginia in 1825 (Allen 1942).
Caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and moose (Alces alces), native to northern New England and southern Canada, were hunted to extinction in the United States in colonial times, surviving only in Canada (Allen 1942). The white‑tailed deer has reoccupied its former range in the northeastern United States and, in fact, these deer have become overpopulated as a result of a lack of natural predators (see Persecution and Hunting chapter). The moose has been reintroduced in recent years to New England and is gradually dispersing southward. Attempts to reintroduce caribou in Maine have failed.
The heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) was another casualty of colonial settlement. This eastern subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, a grouse‑like bird, was native to forest edges, grassland and heath in portions of the Northeast, from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania and New Jersey (Greenway 1967). Pursued by market hunters, these birds became a staple food for colonists. Heath hens were so common in Massachusetts in colonial times that Governor Winthrop ordered his servants not to have them served more often than a few times a week (Greenway 1967). By 1830, the last mainland Massachusetts heath hen was shot in the western part of the state. In New York State, a 1791 law banned hunting of these birds during spring and summer, but the law was flouted, and market hunting on Long Island resulted in its extinction there by 1844 (Greenway 1967). Overhunting in New Jersey and Pennsylvania killed off the last birds in these states by the 1860s. The last population of these birds survived on Martha's Vineyard island off the Massachusetts coast and, although protected from hunting, fire and predation gradually eliminated them by 1932 (Greenway 1967).
The existence of brilliantly colored parakeets flying in large flocks in eastern North America was an unexpected surprise for European colonists settling the country. They had thought such birds lived only in tropical regions. Yet these parakeets obviously had adapted to winter snows and frigid nights. The species was named the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) and had a long, graceful tail and a bright yellow and orange head. Its green wings were tinged with yellow, set off by its overall forest green plumage. Eastern parakeets belonged to the subspecies Conuropsis carolinensis carolinensis and ranged from Florida to southern Virginia, while western parakeets, Conuropsis carolinensis ludovicianus, had a wide distribution from the Mississippi-Missouri River drainage south to Texas, east to Mississippi and north to western New York State and the Great Lakes region (Forshaw 1989). These birds flew in enormous flocks and may have numbered in the millions prior to European settlement.
Like conures (Aratinga genus), native to the Caribbean and Latin America, Carolina parakeets could give away their presence by loud and raucous calling. Because they fed on many types of wild seeds and fruits and were able to endure freezing temperatures, they were among the few species in the parrot family able to survive in harsh climates, with the ability to tolerate temperatures as low as -25 F. (Cokinos 2000). Early travelers in Kansas described the appearance of screaming bands of these parakeets during swirling winter snowstorms; flocks settled in groves of cottonwood and walnut trees, delighting travelers with their vocalizing and dazzling colors (McKinley 1985). Large, hollow trees were among their favorite roosting spots, and flocks of birds would cling to the inside of the trees with their beaks and feet (Forshaw 1989). In early morning, the birds would climb to the top branches of their roosting trees, to the accompaniment of much chattering, and then fly off to feed for several hours. When they saw a fruit or seeding tree, the flock would spiral down until they almost reached the ground, and then rise up to alight on the branches. In the afternoons, they sheltered in groves of trees, often near streams where they drank and bathed (Forshaw 1989).
These parakeets may have been most abundant in the South and the major river valleys of the Midwest. Early naturalists described them perched in huge Bald Cypress trees, their bright plumage contrasting with the pale green, feathery foliage. They would hover and flutter on the tops of these cypresses, extracting the seeds (McKinley 1985). Travelers in the southern hardwood forests and swamps, as well as in pine woods, found them very numerous. In Florida's St. John's River area, where mid-19th century observers saw large flocks, many were killed by plantation owners for food (McKinley 1985).
In Audubon's painting of Carolina Parakeets, these extremely sociable birds are clustered in a tree, feeding on Cockleburs (Cenchrus tribuloides), their favorite food (Blaugrund and Stebbins 1993). Only recently have the true colors of this bird, as depicted by Audubon, been revealed by a publication of his original watercolors, which shows their plumage in shades of vivid green, yellow and reddish orange. In the lithographs of previous editions, these colors were drab and dull (Blaugrund and Stebbins 1993).
As their forests were cut and prairies plowed for farms, the parakeets turned to raiding crops and orchards. Flocks would converge on farms at times of harvest, alighting on stacks of grain sheaves. So dense were the perching and feeding birds that they made the stacks look as if "brilliantly colored carpets had been thrown on them," according to Audubon (Forshaw 1989). For these raids on farms, they received "severe retaliations" from farmers; Carolina parakeets were easily approached and never learned to fly away from humans. Farmers would shoot entire flocks, killing 10 or 20 at each discharge (Forshaw 1989). When one was shot, the others refused to leave their wounded or dead flock mate. Audubon described these massacres: "The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies, screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more on ammunition" (Poattie 1940).
Like many members of the parrot family, Carolina parakeets attempted to aid others of their kind who were stricken or threatened by predators. This behavior contributed to their survival in natural conditions, and only the devastating killing power of guns hastened their extinction. Audubon described procuring a basketful of the parakeets with a few shots in 1831 in order to choose good specimens for drawing the figures for his watercolors of North American birds (Fuller 1987). Thousands more of these parakeets were captured for the pet trade and killed for museum collections. At least 675 of the eastern race alone are found in museums. In the last decades of the 19th century, amateur collectors of specimen birds and their eggs proliferated around the country, and dealers in specimens earned large sums from the sale of rare birds. The rarer the bird, the higher the price paid, further endangering the species. Many birds were killed for specimens by collectors who failed to note the location and date of the killing (McKinley 1985). Molting adults and juvenile birds were thrown out, and the physical appearance of the latter birds remains unrecorded (McKinley 1985). One German taxidermist, August Koch, visited the home of a friend in Florida in 1887 and shot some of these parakeets in the back yard of his host as they fed on mulberries (McKinley 1985). A tree that appeared to be sporting "yellow flowers with red centers," turned out to be a flock of parakeets roosting in the early evening, and he shot two birds for his collection (McKinley 1985). Another hunter was led by a Seminole Indian to a "parakeet tree," a large, hollow cypress tree near Lake Okeechobee in Florida, where he shot "as many specimens as my ammunition would allow" (McKinley 1985).
In spite of the keen interest in the species by scientists, naturalists and members of the public, few observations were made of the behavior of these parakeets while they were still common. Almost nothing is known of their life history, flock movements, breeding seasons, nesting, feeding or ecology (McKinley 1985). It is known, however, that they were long-lived, based on the survival of the last captive specimens, which were at least 32 years old. Although a few bred in captivity, they often abandoned their eggs, and no captive-bred birds survived (Forshaw 1989). In spite of large numbers captured for sale as cage birds, no serious effort was made to perpetuate the species through captive breeding, which might have prevented their extinction.
As early as 1831, Audubon noticed a decline: "Our parakeets are very rapidly diminishing in number; and in some districts, where twenty-five years ago they were plentiful, scarcely any are now to be seen" (Forshaw 1989).
Flocks of several hundred had commonly been seen when the country was first settled. Within about 90 years, by the 1880s, they had declined both in range and number, with only small flocks or pairs remaining (Forshaw 1989). Persecution by farmers was a major cause — and perhaps the most important factor — in the decline of the Carolina parakeet in the view of parrot ornithologist, Joseph Forshaw (1989). The last flocks sought refuge in the forests and remote swamps of Florida, where collectors and trappers pursued them (Forshaw 1989). Other factors played important roles as well. Thousands were killed for sport or for their feathers to decorate ladies’ hats. Their nesting and roosting trees were cut by settlers and loggers, and their food plants were plowed under by farmers (Cokinos 2000). European honeybees, armed with stingers and introduced by colonists, also may have driven them from their hollow trees as they rapidly spread throughout the country, seeking hive sites (Cokinos 2000). These hollow tree-roosting sites may have been crucial to their survival in cold weather; the birds crowded together side-by-side for warmth. The giant hollow cypresses and sycamores, oaks and other hardwoods in the old-growth forests of the eastern United States, crucial habitat to so many species of wildlife, were among the first trees cut in bottomland swamps and forests.
A few Carolina parakeets survived into the first years of the 20th century, with sightings reported in the Panhandle and the Kissimmee Prairie of north-central Florida (McKinley 1985). The last wild specimen was taken in either 1901 or 1904; the date is still in dispute (Cokinos 2000). A flock of 13 of these birds was seen near Lake Okeechobee, Florida in 1920, and two eminent ornithologists, Alexander Sprunt and Robert Porter Allen, went in search of the last members of the species in 1936. They reported seeing a flock along the Santee River in South Carolina, but the National Audubon Society later dismissed the account (Forshaw 1989). In any case, the area was later destroyed for construction of a power project (Forshaw 1989). No confirmed sightings were made after about 1920, although a black-and-white home movie made in 1937 showed some parakeets in the Okefenokee Swamp of southeastern Georgia that may have been of this species (McKinley 1985). Had the Carolina parakeet been accorded legal protection and reserves set aside during the 19th century, this spectacular species would almost certainly still be alive.
A pair of Carolina parakeets kept at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens –the same zoo that housed Martha, the last passenger pigeon – was the last known members of their species. Sixteen of these parakeets were purchased by this zoo in the 1880s for $2.50 per bird (Fuller 1987). Over the years, the birds laid eggs, but none hatched or were even incubated, and gradually they died off until only a pair was left — cage-mates for 32 years (Fuller 1987). In the late summer of 1917, the female, Lady Jane, died. Incas, the male, became listless after her death, and in February 1918, he died of grief, the keepers claimed (Fuller 1987).
The old-growth pine and mixed hardwood forests of the Southeast, as well as Cuba, were home to a large and noisy bird that may have disappeared. The ivory‑billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), at 18 to 21 inches long, is the largest woodpecker in the United States or Canada and the second largest in the world. Elegant in appearance, both male and female are predominantly black, with stripes of white feathers on both sides of the neck; the lower half of their wings is white, as is the enormous bill for which the species was named (Short 1982). Their drumming on dead tree trunks once reverberated in the forests as they removed strips of bark a foot or more long to uncover beetle larvae. They also drummed as a territorial signal, trumpeted and made a call that sounded like a child’s tin horn. Their vocal repertoire also included a soft call between male and female perched side-by-side while changing places incubating eggs in their high nest holes (Cokinos 2000). Never heard by scientists observing them in the wild, the ivory-billed woodpeckers uttered an extraordinary screech when captured and transported away from their forest, as described by ornithologist and artist Alexander Wilson early in the 19th century (Cokinos 2000). Wounding an adult male to use as a subject for a painting, he was astonished to hear him utter “a loudly reiterated and most piteous note, exactly resembling the violent crying of a young child” (Cokinos 2000). The bird continued to scream loudly as he was carried in a container to a town nearby, alarming people who took the noise for that of a child. Wilson rented a room where he planned to paint him, and the frantic bird began drumming on the wall, breaking off huge chunks of plaster, and damaged a mahogany table. Although offered food, the distraught bird refused to eat and died within three days (Cokinos 2000).
The ivory-bill's decline came as a result of heavy logging begun in the 18th century, which destroyed millions of acres of old-growth pine and hardwood bottomland forest in the Southeast. Each pair required a territory of at least 6 square miles of mature forest, and as their forest disappeared, ivory-billed woodpeckers became so rare that few were seen after 1900 (Cokinos 2000). Hunting also made inroads into their populations. These birds made large targets and were so conspicuous and noisy that they attracted the attention of meat and sport hunters in the 19th century. At that time, few people walked in the woods without a gun; most people took shots at any large bird or mammal.
Over-collecting of specimens by museums was another factor in the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Its size, beauty and natural rarity brought museum collectors from around the world to scour forests in the South for the last specimens of this bird. There are 400 known museum specimens worldwide (Day 1981), and most of these were taken in the last years of the 19th century, when the species had become extremely rare. Nineteenth century museum curators often sent collectors out to obtain specimens of very rare animals after they received word that the species was headed toward extinction. Responsible modern natural history museum curators do not routinely collect rare animals, but reach agreements to allow very limited collection of newly discovered species, usually only by the scientist who made the discovery. Most museums now loan specimens to scientists who wish to examine them.
Dr. Lester Short (1982), an authority on woodpeckers, believes the ivory-billed woodpecker's original habitat was probably the virgin pine forests that once covered much of the Southeast. They had become confined to hardwood swamp forests in Louisiana, which was probably not ideal habitat for them (Short 1982). Upon the discovery of a small number of Ivory-bills in a forest along the Tensas River in Louisiana, Cornell University scientists organized an expedition to film and record these birds. They later designated a young Ph.D. ornithologist, James T. Tanner, to study these last birds in the wild. In his study, The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, published in 1942, he estimated that at that time, no more than 22 of these woodpeckers remained in the United States. His investigation centered on the only known population of ivory-billed woodpeckers in the 120 square mile old growth forest. The Cornell team filmed the birds drumming on trees and recorded their various calls. This film is part of Stouffer Productions' “At the Crossroads” film. (See Video section, Endangered Species, General.) These recordings are retained in the Cornell Ornithological Library of bird songs, along with motion pictures of a pair of woodpeckers.
Tanner documented the presence of seven pairs and four young in 1934. He also traveled extensively in the Southeast, where ivory-billed woodpeckers were seen in the past, asking local people for sightings and listening for their unique calls; he was unsuccessful. From 1931 to 1939, the last remaining birds raised 19 young. They declined as he was observing them, however, and by 1939, only six ivory-billed woodpeckers — one pair, one young bird and three males — remained in these woodlands (Cokinos 2000). They had lost the majority of their habitat after the Singer Company sold the logging rights for these 80 thousand acres to Chicago Mills in 1937, and the old growth forest was rapidly leveled. Some of the birds may have been shot for the $1,000 collectors were willing to pay (Cokinos 2000). In the early 1940s, the National Audubon Society’s president appealed directly to President Franklin Roosevelt to spare the ivory-bills’ last habitat, and the Secretary of the Interior was ordered to consider the matter (Cokinos 2000). Various federal agencies and the War Production Board agreed these trees could be spared for the war effort. These agencies and four state governors urged Chicago Mills to protect this forest (Cokinos 2000). The State of Louisiana offered the company $200 thousand as compensation in December 1943, but it refused, and attempts in the US Congress to pass legislation to mandate protection of the Singer woodlands failed as well (Cokinos 2000). This company remained indifferent to the fate of the woodpeckers, red wolves, mountain lions, black bears and abundant birdlife being destroyed to produce chests to ship tea to the English Army (Cokinos 2000).
Unknown to conservationists and government agencies was the fact that it was already too late. Richard Pough, a National Audubon Society employee, was sent to search for any remaining ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Singer woodlands in December 1943. He saw the last ivory-billed woodpecker, a lone female, and noted in January 1944: “It is sickening to see what a waste a lumber company can make of what was a beautiful forest. Watched them cutting the last stand of the finest sweet gum on Monday. One log was 6 feet in diameter at the butt” (Cokinos 2000). This may have been the same female and her fledgling chick seen by Tanner in 1941, the only birds remaining at that time (Cokinos 2000). A wildlife artist, Don Eckelberry, heard of the disastrous situation for this species and traveled to the Singer woodlands to paint this female ivory-billed woodpecker. His observations constitute the last authenticated sightings of the species in the United States (Cokinos 2000).
Many searches have been made throughout its once wide range, which extended from southeastern Oklahoma and Missouri north to Indiana and east through northern Florida. Sightings have been made of these birds over the years in Florida and Mississippi, but none was authenticated by photographs or recordings (Cokinos 2000). The last 20th century observation was made on April Fool’s Day, April 1, 1999, by a forestry student along the Louisiana-Mississippi state line, in the Pearl River basin (Cokinos 2000). He claimed to have seen a male and female at close range in a swamp forest (Cokinos 2000). Subsequent searches of this forest by ornithologists and others failed to find any trace of ivory-billed woodpeckers (Cokinos 2000).
There is slim hope that the species might survive either in the United States or in Cuba. These birds were seen in Cuba’s southeastern pine forests during the early 1980s, but this population dwindled and disappeared by 1991 in spite of a reserve that had been set aside for it (Collar et al. 1994). In 1998, evidence of its possible survival in Cuba consisted of some likely sightings in the Sierra Maestra highlands, where it had never been seen before (BI 2000; Garrido and Kirkconnell 2000). Although unlikely, it would be a truly exciting event if the magnificent ivory-billed woodpecker survived in spite of the almost total loss of its habitat.
Bachman's warbler (Vermivora bachmanii), a small yellow songbird of the southeastern United States, has not been seen for decades. John James Audubon painted a pair of these birds without ever having seen them alive. The species was discovered in 1833 by his close friend, John Bachman (Blaugrund and Stebbins 1993). Audubon's painting was based on specimens sent to him by Bachman. He depicted the Bachman's warbler posed stiffly on a Franklinia tree (Franklinia altamaha), an equally mysterious species with large white flowers. Discovered in the South in 1765 by the noted botanists William and John Bartram, this beautiful tree was named in honor of Benjamin Franklin (Blaugrund and Stebbins 1993). In spite of thorough searches in the area in Georgia where the tree was found, the Franklinia was never seen in the wild again (Blaugrund and Stebbins 1993). Fortunately, the Bartrams had taken cuttings of the tree for cultivation, and this tree is now grown in botanical gardens and nurseries throughout the world. Bachman’s warbler became very rare after 1920.
Originally, these warblers ranged from the lower Mississippi River and east Texas, north to southern Indiana, and along the east coast from Georgia north to southern Maryland (Hamel 1995). The species' original habitat was southern bottomland, hardwood forest with extensive cane (Arundinaria gigantea) thickets (Hamel 1995). Clearance of these forests in the 19th century and first decades of the 20th century, both in the United States and in Cuba, where it wintered, eliminated the majority of its habitat. It is not known to what extent it used canebrakes and bamboo thickets growing on bottomlands, but these were the last habitats in which it was seen.
A 19th century observer of Bachman's Warblers, O. Widmann, entered bottomland forests in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and wrote in 1897, "I had no trouble in finding several singing males on the day of my arrival…
In the wildness of his home it takes several minutes to follow him over fallen trees and around impenetrable thickets or pools of water" (Hamel 1995). Widmann saw its nest "tied very slightly to a vertical blackberry vine of fresh growth… From above, it was entirely hidden by branchlets of latest growth… to reach the place it was necessary to go through pools of water and heaps of fallen trees and brush. Such sheltered places are probably chosen to avoid the danger of being trampled down by hogs and cattle roving in these woods" (Hamel 1995). This wild region was a mixed habitat of sweetgum, blackgum, tulip trees, mulberry, ashes, cottonwood, hackberry and hardwoods; Bachman's warblers were seen mainly in the higher portions, which were also those first cleared (Hamel 1995).
Approximately 400 scientific specimens were collected for museums, and this may have reduced its population at a time when it was already rare (Hamel 1995). The last nest was found in 1937, and much of this species' life history remains a mystery. Intensive searches have been carried out by biologists for this bird; a total of 7,000 hours were spent between 1975 and 1979 combing likely habitat areas in South Carolina, Missouri and Arkansas. In 8,000 hectares (19,768 acres) of apparently suitable habitat, no Bachman's warblers were seen or heard (Hamel 1995). As recently as 1980, an unconfirmed sighting was reported in Cuba, but the last confirmed sighting of a Bachman's warbler was in 1961 near Charleston, South Carolina (Hamel 1995). An unconfirmed sighting was made in 1988, but none have been seen since (BI 2000).