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In the 1800s, billions of passenger pigeons occupied the North American skies. Enough of these pigeons, scientifically known as Ectopistes migratorius, filled the sky that they often blocked sunlight for hours in the daytime. But within a century they were wiped out by hunters for sport and commercialism. Here are some of the details passenger pigeons, which became easy prey for hunters in the 19th century, when bird hunting rose in popularity.

How Industrialization Influenced Bird Hunting

Passenger pigeons were vulnerable to hunters because they flew in huge flocks that made them easy targets. Low flying birds in particular could easily be killed with a pole. The invention of the telegraph allowed hunters to locate flocks and nests in real-time. Another major technological advance of the era, the railroad, allowed them to transport thousands of pigeons at a time to various markets.

Martha, the Last of the Species

By the early 1900s, the only known passenger pigeons left in America were housed at the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha was identified as the final bird of the species, as despite a $1,000 reward for bringing a male passenger pigeon to the zoo, she died in 1914 without finding a mate. She was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, where she can still be seen today.

Reasons to Remember Passenger Pigeons

One of the interesting facts about passenger pigeons is they collaborated to find food and raise offspring. As flocks, they were able to drop hundreds of feet in the air all at once and maintain their course, demonstrating their team spirit of flying together. As a team, they defended each other against enemies.

But as the population began to quickly decline in the late 19th century, it weakened their community and their connections with each other. The death of this species became a wake-up call to citizens and lawmakers that wildlife must be protected. It also made scientists realize that a greater understanding of birds can be learned by studying how populations of species affect the broader ecosystem.

Beginning of the Conservation Era

On a positive note, the extinction of the passenger pigeon led to the first major wildlife preservation legislation, kicking off America’s conservation movement. These laws helped save endangered species such as the American alligator and bald eagle.

Today about 13% of birds, 25% of mammals and 41% of amphibians have been identified as endangered wildlife, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.