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.

–Committee report to Ohio state legislature, 1857

By September the summer sounds of the forest preserve have mainly died away. The dog-day cicadas still hum incessantly, but among the birds only the crows and the blue jays with their aggressive hee-yer! hee-yer! bother calling much during the last lingering summer afternoons. The birds that enliven the woods with their songs in spring and summer are quiet now. They exist only as faint rustlings hidden behind the leaves, tiny chips or flits of wings half heard.

Along the railroad tracks the ashes and cottonwoods are turning yellow, the sumacs and Virginia creepers twining the trunks brilliant crimson. The trees’ shadows grow long in the afternoon, presaging the chill of fall. The leaves have done most of their photosynthetic work already, the birds have nested and raised their young, the insects have spun their cocoons and hidden their eggs in the crevices and holes the chickadees and woodpeckers will probe all winter long, and it seems as though the whole world is just waiting for the days to get shorter and colder.

Among the trees the air pools still and warm, though above me I can see the wind swaying the high crowns of the white oak trees. Among their leaves, still glossy green, I can see the abundant, small round shapes of acorns, and once in a while I hear one drop into the leaf litter, sheared off by wind or more likely the tooth work of a chipmunk or gray squirrel. I wish I’d brought my hat; being hit by an acorn falling 50 feet is an unfortunately memorable experience.

White oaks are a masting species, producing large crops of acorns in some years and very few in others. Generally all the trees in a given area are on the same schedule. It takes a lot of energy to produce a lot of seeds, so oaks store food for a few years and then go all out. As many as eight or nine years of scarcity, or more commonly three to five, may pass between masting years. The trees produce so many acorns–up to 7,000 on a single large tree–that all the woods’ blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer together cannot eat them all. Some fall unnoticed among the leaf litter. Others are buried and forgotten by jays and squirrels, which serve to carry the seeds farther away from their parent trees than they could ever be borne by wind. Next spring’s rains will pull from the ground a bumper crop of oak seedlings. The acorns will also produce a brief but noticeable surge in the populations of squirrels, jays, and chipmunks.

The lives of those animals are so intertwined with those of the oaks that it’s as if they all comprised one great organism. The system by which oaks reproduce and feed their attendant animals seems so well-oiled that it is easy to forget how radically different it once was. Only a little over a century ago the primary consumer of acorns was the passenger pigeon, and a walk in the oak woods could have been a profoundly different experience.

There is much talk these days of endangered species. Politicians and developers complain of the expense, and the red tape, of protecting them; conservationists hold up the specter of extinction as a haunting reminder of what our great-grandchildren may remember about us–that we were too greedy, or too careless, to protect a legacy that belongs to the ages.

I come to the woods in part for refuge from this debate, and also because I want to know what it means when an animal becomes extinct. Americans of my great-grandparents’ generation knew the pigeons. What marks has the most famous symbol of extinction in North America left us? When I walk in the woods I listen hard for what has been lost and wonder whether the silence that yearly pervades the woods is not something created rather than the inherent voice of the season.

The passenger pigeon winged its way into Western history on July 1, 1534, when Jacques Cartier, nosing along the coast of Prince Edward Island, saw what he called an “infinite number” of the birds flying by. That is roughly what Americans were to see for the next three and a half centuries; by the time they realized that the pigeon populations were in fact not infinite, never had been, never could be, it was already too late to save them. The passenger pigeons were neither the first nor the only “inexhaustable” resource to be decimated in North America–think of the great auk, the Atlantic right whale, the bison, the old-growth hardwood forests of the Ohio Valley, the towering white pines of the North Woods–but their disappearance made the greatest impression on the greatest number of people. For several generations, as settlers moved into the eastern deciduous forests, the pigeons were not just part of their lives, but the most stunning of all the biological spectacles on a continent rife with wonders.

A passenger pigeon was slightly larger than a mourning dove and had the same sort of long, delicately tapered tail we see today on the smaller bird. A female pigeon looked much like a large dove. The male was resplendent, with a back of azure and a breast of ruddy red-orange. Especially around its head and neck, some of its feathers sported a surface iridescence. When Edward B. Clark saw a male illuminated by the sunrise in Lincoln Park in April 1894–one of the last seen in the wild anywhere by a reliable observer, and probably the very last seen within Chicago’s city limits–he reported that “every feather shone, and the bird’s neck was gem-like in its brilliancy.”

In earlier years no one bothered about individual passenger pigeons. No hunter set out to shoot an individual pigeon; the goal was hundreds, or thousands. Naturalists wrote of massive, unbelievable flocks. Early in the 19th century the ornithologist Alexander Wilson saw a flight of pigeons more than a mile wide, and several birds deep, that passed overhead for four hours in Kentucky. “They were flying, with great steadiness and rapidity, at a height beyond gunshot, in several strata deep, and so close together, that, could shot have reached them, one discharge could not have failed of bringing down several individuals,” he wrote. “From right to left, far as the eye could reach, the breadth of this vast procession extended, seeming every where equally crowded.”

Wilson conservatively estimated that the flock held more than 2.2 billion birds. Another flight of pigeons seen crossing into Ontario from the U.S. was estimated at 3.7 billion. John James Audubon reported watching a stream of pigeons fly overhead for three days. As much as 40 percent of the bird population of the contiguous United States may have consisted of passenger pigeons.

They were strong fliers who could be found from the Gulf Coast to the boreal forests of Ontario and Quebec–their scientific name, Ectopistes migratorius, means “migratory wanderer.” They could cover hundreds of miles a day, descending periodically upon tracts of hardwood forest to gorge on acorns and beechnuts. They settled in such numbers that limbs and even entire large trees broke, killing hundreds of birds as they hit the ground. Their dung soon covered the ground like snow and killed all the underbrush. Where they had roosted the forests were wrecked–trees dead or dying, shrubs suffocated, nuts all gone. Pioneers were grateful because a pigeon visit could make the work of clearing the forest easier. They were, in Aldo Leopold’s neat phrase, “a biological storm.”

“When alighted, they are seen industriously throwing up the withered leaves in quest of the fallen mast,” wrote Audubon. “The rear ranks are continually rising, passing over the main body, and alighting in front, in such rapid succession, that the whole flock seems still on the wing. The quantity of ground thus swept is astonishing, and so completely has it been cleared, that the gleaner who might follow in their rear would find his labor completely lost. Whilst feeding, their avidity is at times so great that in attempting to swallow a large acorn or nut, they are seen gasping for a long while, as if in agonies of suffocation.

“On such occasions, when the woods are filled with these pigeons, they are killed in immense numbers, although no apparent diminution ensues.”

Their nestings were more spectacular still. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of pigeons nested together, in long swaths that stretched several miles wide and dozens of miles long. When the pigeons nested north of Petoskey, Michigan, in 1878, by which time their numbers were already on the decline, their nests were distributed over an area estimated at 100,000 acres–a stretch of forest 40 miles long and 3 to 4 miles wide.

The largest trees held more than a hundred flimsy nests, built in every favorable crotch. The noise was terrific. Wilson spoke to local people who had hunted at a great nesting: “Several of them informed me, that the noise in the woods was so great as to terrify their horses, and that it was difficult for one person to hear one another speak, without bawling in his ear….The ground was strewed with broken limbs of trees, eggs, and young squab pigeons, which had been precipitated from above, and on which herds of hogs were fattening. Hawks, buzzards, and eagles, were sailing about in great numbers, and seizing the squabs from their nests at pleasure; while from twenty feet upwards to the tops of the trees, the view through the woods presented a perpetual tumult of crowding and fluttering multitudes of pigeons, their wings roaring like thunder, mingled with the frequent crash of falling timber; for now the axe-men were at work, cutting down those trees that seemed to be most crowded with nests, and contrived to fell them in such a manner, that, in their descent, they might bring down several others; by which means the falling of one large tree sometimes produced two hundred squabs, little inferior in size to the old ones, and almost one mass of fat….It was dangerous to walk under these flying and fluttering millions, from the frequent fall of large branches, broken down by the weight of the multitudes above, and which, in their descent, often destroyed numbers of the birds themselves; while the clothes of those engaged in traversing the woods were completely covered with the excrements of the pigeons.”

Once the telegraph and railroad arrived, news of nestings spread fast, and people traveled from distant states to take advantage. Adult pigeons were shot, or baited with wheat soaked in whiskey. They were suffocated by smoke from fires lit on the forest floor. Hundreds were trapped at one time with nets set up at the salt licks they frequented, lured there by captive pigeons set on perches known as stools–the origin of the term stool pigeon. Flightless young were knocked out of their nests with long poles. Where pigeons nested in birch trees the bark was lit afire, and the young collected when they jumped from their nests to avoid the flames. The squabs hit the ground like ripe apples, so fat sometimes that they burst open as they landed. Wagons piled high with pigeons trailed away from the nestings. “Pigeons become the order of the day at dinner, breakfast, and supper,” wrote Wilson, “until the very name becomes sickening.”

Pigeons were taken both for immediate local consumption and for shipment to metropolitan markets. As late as 1880 a dozen cleaned adult pigeons could be bought for about $1.50 in Chicago; squabs were a trifle more expensive. It was possible to trap thousands of pigeons a day near a large nesting. Trappers could make $500 during four weeks of nesting–enough money that there was no need to work for the rest of the year. It’s no wonder that when voices were raised against the slaughter, and even when laws were passed prohibiting the taking of pigeons in or near nesting areas, they were almost universally ignored.

Audubon commented on this style of hunting: “Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease.” He may have been right. Though millions might be killed at a large nesting, billions were left. It’s likely that the disruption of nesting areas–many pigeons abandoned their nests once the shooting or burning started–had a much greater effect than outright killing. And the “diminution of our forests” probably had the greatest impact. As the great eastern forest was cleared for fields the pigeons simply had fewer and fewer places where they could fill up on acorns and beechnuts. The committee that reported to the Ohio legislature in 1857 had this right in recommending against hunting restrictions; “no ordinary destruction” could diminish the pigeons. What occurred, instead, was an extraordinary destruction of the birds’ habitat that could not help but end in their demise.

The decline came so quickly that many observers suggested the birds had migrated en masse to South America or drowned in the Gulf of Mexico. Huge nestings occurred through the 1870s. By the mid-1890s, sightings of even single pigeons had become rare. The last individual in captivity, named Martha, died in Cincinnati in 1914, having lived in a cage alone for the last five years of her life as the final representative of a species already extinct.

Though their life history was never well studied, ornithologists now believe that passenger pigeons were so socially inclined that they were stimulated to breed only when a certain critical mass of other pigeons were present–a thousand, ten thousand; nobody knows how many were needed. We might imagine that small flocks of pigeons should have been able to survive, descending like breezes rather than storms on the oaks, like flocks of hungry jays, but they were not such a species. They needed one another. They needed many of one another. A pair of pigeons, male and female, was not a biologically functioning unit unless surrounded by many, many others. They were absolutely incapable of living life on a small scale.

At the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford you can see a pair of passenger pigeons ranked in a glass case with the ducks and warblers and hawks and other local birds. They are dusty, stuffed birds, not the least bit lifelike. Some of the glittering iridescence remains on the male’s neck, though, and in the bulge of the wing muscles and the sweep of the tails you can get a vague sense of what it would have been like to have a flight of these birds wing so swiftly overhead. Even a single pair of these birds, as they swerved toward extinction, would have been noticeable.

I can imagine, looking at what these two have become, how the man who shot them–it almost certainly was a man, in those days–felt justified in doing so. In the days before the Endangered Species Act, the top priority often was killing, not saving, the last individuals of a species for museum specimens or to confirm the sighting. I can imagine how the pigeons flew in, one last time, just two this time instead of multitudes, but still they flew quickly out of nowhere, strong fliers, and the sun reflected in many colors from the male’s neck. Had the gunner not shot then that vision of passing beauty would have been gone forever, never to return, and so he shot, more out of love than greed, and met his mark, and the birds fell; and though the lifeless bodies lost their luster, they were at least a slight reminder of what had been. I think of those pigeons spiraling downward whenever I see a bird or butterfly or flower that is so beautiful that I want to hold on to it for good, and though I know, I know, that the moment cannot be preserved, because it contains the frangible beauty of things that pass, sometimes I pick the flower, or try to catch the butterfly by its wings, and later when I look at it again it is my sorrow that hints at what I saw before.

From a car, the forest preserve flashes by in less than a minute. Inside the woods the noise of the local roads, and of the highway a mile away, is never out of earshot. Yet imagine how the place appears to one of the chipmunks gathering acorns for winter storage. A chipmunk could be born, live, and die within the few acres of the forest preserve, never having to cross a road, never even seeing a car. When the acorn crop fails it makes no difference to that chipmunk whether the nuts are abundant a few miles to the west or north; those places are not part of its world.

The pigeons comprehended the landscape in a different way. To them the entire eastern forest that stretched from the Gulf Coast to Hudson Bay was of a piece. It was all home. In spring the great flocks flew north as far as they had to until they found areas with enough acorns or beechnuts left from the previous fall to support a month of nesting. Afterward they flew farther north, or east, or west, always in search of big trees for roosting, nuts for food. They were birds of passage. They lived on a continental scale. And in the amount of food they ate, and in the amount of waste they deposited, and in the way they could destroy thousands of acres of forest by their mere presence, they were among the rarest of animals: those that could alter the landscape on the same scale as could humans.

The pigeons shared this quality with the bison of the plains that traveled by the millions, grazing prairies to stubble, then moving on. There was simply no way these animals could coexist with modern Americans, not in their wild form. As North America was settled its new people took on a lifestyle oddly similar to that of the pigeons. We didn’t eat the acorns or the grass, not directly, but our hogs and cattle did. We moved in, cut the trees, plowed the prairie, hunted out the game, and always we could move on to virgin lands elsewhere. We were nomadic, restless. Always there was more forest, more grass, more game, more pure water, out west, up north, somewhere. This was the refrain in the second half of the 19th century, as a few voices began to protest against the slaughter: There will always be more pigeons. There is infinite room for them to nest in the north or in the west. They have flown to South America. There are too many for us to wipe them all out. Our hunting can make no difference. As late as the 1950s some still claimed the pigeons would turn up somewhere.

Voices questioning the killing were raised while the birds were still abundant, in the 1870s and earlier, but even they came far too late. There was no way for us to avoid wiping them out; we could have done so only by changing the way we live. Their demise was inevitable once the Puritans set foot on what they termed a “waste and howling wilderness” that needed to be conquered, subjugated, its forests leveled, its prairie sod overturned. We had to get rid of them because they competed with us in shaping the landscape. There was no way we could have set up preserves for them, because the oaks and beeches masted in different places every year, and so the pigeons nested and fed in new areas every year. We could not have preserved enough habitat for them without converting our American civilization into something more closely resembling the way the natives lived, in low densities that did not require the clearing of much forest. We would have had to adapt ourselves to the land, instead of the other way around. Human life can exist comfortably on such a small scale, but Western civilization as we know it cannot. Shopping malls, tollways, and the vast corn and soybean fields of the midwest exist only because there is a large population that wants or needs them. When we met the passenger pigeons, it was like the waves of two great storms meeting in mid ocean; they crisscross for a while, but given enough time the more powerful one cancels out the other.

But some ripples do remain, spreading out through the centuries and millennia. When the wind blows in September the largest of the white oaks continue to wave their uppermost twigs free and clear, tracing delicate and transitory patterns on the sky. Some are two to three feet in diameter; they may be over a century old. Maybe they were saplings when the pigeons stormed in and filled the branches of the larger trees overhead, or moved like a living carpet of brown and blue and ruddy orange over the leaf litter. Maybe the chipmunks starved because the pigeons ate all the acorns. Maybe the ancestors of the jays whose calls pierce the warm air had to fly miles to feed after the swarm descended. Maybe the undeniable fecundity of the rich black soil that shows here and there below the litter of fallen leaves is still attributable in small part to the drifts of pigeon droppings working their way through the endless cycling of growth and decay, plant and animal, life and death. Certainly the unceasing sound of cars and trucks on the highway, a mile west, says more than any words about the restless striving and the will to build, the need to subjugate the land to our desires, that wiped them out.

I don’t go to the woods to grieve about something I can’t change, in any case, but rather to sense the bare earth of reality, a richness that exists in counterpoint to what has been lost. And so at the end of the summer, when acorns ripen, I listen for the ghost of wings beating like a gale; I listen hard for the sound of lost hopes. What I hear is the traffic passing, and the blood pulsing in my ears.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Russ Ando.