LITTLE ROCK (AGFC) – Just over a century ago, Sept. 1, 1914, to be exact, the last passenger pigeon in the world died in a Cincinnati, Ohio, zoo.
The sad event turned out to be a milestone, a factor in the rise of the conservation movement that had profound effects here in Arkansas. In the space of two years, the Migratory Bird Act was crafted for the nation, that last passenger pigeon died, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was formed and Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge was created in northeast Arkansas.
The four events are intertwined.
That last passenger pigeon was named Martha, and she had been born in captivity so she never was a part of the fabled huge flights of the birds that at one time made up 40 percent of all birds in North America, according to some ornithologists.
Passenger pigeon migrations resulted in “the sky being darkened by the birds” to many people, including Arkansans. The birds were said to number in the billions, not millions. After the Civil War, improved firearms couple with expanded railroads resulted in massive market hunting. Barrels of the pigeons were shipped to big city markets.
Many times, the roosting passenger pigeons were hunted with sticks and not guns. This heyday was from the late 1860s through the 1880s and into the 1890s. Then a decline began, and passenger pigeons plummeted in number. The last known passenger pigeon in the wild was shot in 1900.
In this same time period, roughly, concern grew over other declining wildlife like deer, turkeys, bears and ducks.
In 1907, “conservation” became a genuine movement with the advocacy of President Theodore Roosevelt. States began creating wildlife agencies. The Migratory Bird Act was passed by Congress in 1913, the same year that an attempt to form an Arkansas wildlife agency failed in the state legislature. The last passenger pigeon died the next year not long after World War I started in Europe. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was born in 1915 after a fierce legislative battle. Big Lake NWR's birth helped end the long-running “Big Lake War” that also involved market hunting.
Passenger pigeons were attractive birds resembling mourning doves but larger and with pointed tails instead of fanned tails. Their availability and huge numbers made them popular for food in Arkansas, especially in the eastern part of the state.
Their close relatives, pigeons so common in urban areas, are now called rock doves. These have never attained the dining table popularity of passenger pigeons. Mourning doves have gained favor for food – to a limited degree.
Arkansans hunt mourning doves, usually for a few days at the start of a 70-day season, but there has not been a threat to the populations of these birds. Numbers appear stable or perhaps increasing somewhat and they have adapted well to the food sources from natural weed seeds to agricultural products over much of the state.