Passenger pigeons were plentiful in Maine and across North America until the late 19th century. The species went extinct after the death of Martha, above, in 1914. The mounted bird is now found at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

In honor of Maine’s bicentennial, I want to devote three columns to changes in Maine bird populations over the last 200 years. The 1820 federal census recorded almost 300,000 people in Maine. Our population now has increased a bit more than four-fold.

We obviously don’t have census data for birds dating back to the 19th century, but I think I can make a case for a strong decline in our total bird population since 1820.

Let’s start with birds that were found in Maine in 1820 but are no longer with us. The great auk, a puffin relative, was a flightless seabird found along the coasts of North America and western Europe. They were large birds, weighing up to 11 pounds with large fat deposits. Great auks were common along the Maine coast outside of the breeding season. In the western Atlantic, they nested in Newfoundland and a few other sites well to the north of Maine.

Great auks were easily captured by sailors. The slaughtered auks were used for human food and for fish bait. Their fat and feathers were also harvested. Great auks were taken in large numbers as well on the breeding grounds.

These human impacts clearly accelerated the demise of the great auk. The last two seen in the wild were killed in Iceland in 1844 for someone’s bird collection.

The Labrador duck was an enigmatic diving duck found along Atlantic coast from fall to spring as far south as the mid-Atlantic states. We don’t know where they nested. The reasons for their extinction are equally murky. The last Labrador duck sighting was on Long Island in 1875.

The greater prairie chicken is a member of the grouse family, found in the middle of the country. The heath hen was a subspecies that occurred in the northeast. They preferred scrub-oak habitat as one can see in the Kennebunk Plains region. Heath hens barely made it into southeastern Maine but were present in 1820.

Heath hens were extinct on the mainland by 1870. A population on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts persisted until 1932.

And now for the big one. Passenger pigeons were easily the most abundant bird in North America and in Maine in 1820. Their population at peak was between 3 billion to 5 billion birds, accounting for 25 percent of all the birds in North America.

They were nomadic birds, wandering in massive flocks in search of beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts and other forest seeds. They nested in colonies involving hundreds of thousands of birds.

Their gregarious nature led to their doom. It was easy for hunters to kill large numbers of birds to sell for human consumption. Hunters invented horribly efficient punt guns about eight feet long that could fire a pound of bird shot at once.

This over-hunting started the passenger pigeons on a downward spiral. Deforestation diminished the pigeons’ habitat, hastening their demise.

The last passenger pigeon in the wild was seen in Ohio in 1900. The last one in captivity, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Maine regularly hosted large numbers of these birds. Their extinction deprived Maine of its most abundant bird species. Just from the removal of that species, we can say that there were more birds in Maine in 1820 than there are today.

Humans intentionally introduced three species of Old World species into North America that are now part of Maine’s avifauna.

Rock pigeons were brought by European colonists in the early 17th century for food. These birds are now found throughout the U.S., never very far from human-altered landscapes.

European starlings were introduced illegally into Central Park in New York City in 1890 and 1891. Starlings have spread throughout the lower 48 states, southern Canada and even southern Alaska.

One hundred house sparrows were introduced into Brooklyn in 1851. This species is now almost as widely distributed as starlings in North America.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at [email protected]


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