In the early 1800s a flock of passenger pigeons that numbered 2.2 billion birds flew between Kentucky and Indiana – a flock one mile wide extending 240 miles. There were so many Passenger Pigeons in that flock that if they were stretched beak-to-tail they would have wound around the circumference of the earth at its equator nearly 23 times. Audubon recorded an overflight of Passenger Pigeons that took three days to pass, even though the birds averaged 60 miles an hour. He likened their passage to an eclipse of the sun.
Audubon painted the passenger pigeon in 1824. Printed plates of his painting show a female on the frosted upper branch of a tree feeding a male perched on a lower branch of the same tree. Unlike the roller, the sexes of the passenger pigeon differed in coloration. The female, with her drab, brownish-orange back and slate blue plumage on her belly, contrasted with the male’s brilliant blue back and orange breast. In Audubon’s painting the male has a duller neck than was often reported - a neck that glittered purple, gold, yellow and green. Both sexes are depicted with their trademark pink feet and red eyes.
Once the most abundant land bird on the planet, the passenger pigeon is gone. Snuffed out. Not a single bird left. Flocks in the millions whose wingbeats sounded like thunder, whose descent to the ground in funnels looked like tornados, whose dung rained to the ground like sleet, gone. Flocks that blocked sunlight from the sky and moved in squalls, in weather fronts, gone. Flocks that would have turned entire radar screens green, gone.
In 1871 a nesting colony in Wisconsin measured 850 square miles. The rumble of wings erupting from that roost made the ground tremble. Turn your stereo receiver to a place between stations, then turn up the volume until your walls shake. That was the sound of passenger pigeons, of a Niagara of birds.
There is not a single person alive today who has seen a live flock of passenger pigeons. The extinction of the passenger pigeon was not a natural one, caused by a meteor or ice age or disease. No, we destroyed their habitat, hunted them, killed them, ate them, shipped them by the ton in railroad cars, five billion birds by the late 1890s.
The last passenger pigeon died in a zoo in 1914.
The last rhinos on earth will look like this mother and her calf. Poachers even hacked out the budding horn of the calf.