Eating to extinction (Happy Thanksgiving, bird eaters!)

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Eating to extinction (Happy Thanksgiving, bird eaters!)
A prone man  aims shotgun, resting on log, at 3 turkeys; an Indian guide crouches behind him.
1890 lithograph by Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum, Harry T. Peters “America on Stone” Lithography Collection

Sept. 1, 1914: The passenger pigeon goes extinct after billions were shot to feed hungry urban markets during the preceding century.

Nov. 27, 2014: Thanksgiving, the day we gobble gobblers (AKA turkeys) and wonder: Is the original Thanksgiving meat now extinct? Hint: It’s not the wild turkey.

The turkey, supposedly the focus of the Pilgrim’s first feasts, was eliminated across much of its wild realm by over-hunting and habitat destruction. These days, after extensive restoration efforts, the wild turkey is easy to find (though reputedly difficult to hunt).

But we’ve learned that the heath hen, a smaller bird that was more common in the Northeast during Pilgrim times, was more likely the focus of the feeding frenzy in those first feasts. If so, the true “Thanksgiving turkey” went extinct in 1932.

Thanksgiving ruminations: Remembering the birds we ate ’til they were gone!

ird with striped feathers seen in profile,  with crest on its head.

Heath Hen

Ornithologist and conservationist Stanley Temple at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says “Many people, myself included, believe the Pilgrim Thanksgiving meal was not turkey but the heath hen.” The area had few turkeys, but the many heath hens “were intensely hunted and very good to eat. I don’t think anyone would argue against overkill, over-hunting as the major cause of their demise.” By the late 19th century, heath hens were only found on Martha’s Vineyard, an island only 50 miles from the Pilgrim’s colony at Plymouth, Mass. Even though a large preserve was created for them, heath hens were battered by predatory birds, a catastrophic fire during nesting season and possibly diseases carried by poultry. Eventually, low fertility and other symptoms of inbreeding depression appeared, and the birds died out in 1932.
Feathered game of the Northeast, by Walter H. Rich
Mid-1800s wood block engraving of 9 hunters shooting an enormous swarm of passenger pigeons; some birds fall, and hunters collect them from the ground.

Passenger Pigeon

In 1871, hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons nested across 850 square miles of central Wisconsin, and eyewitnesses reported that almost every tree held dozens of nests. So if any bird seemed extinction-proof, it was this one, but later in the century, squads of “pigeoners” travelling the new railroads shotgunned these colonial-nesting birds and stuffed their carcasses into barrels for shipment to Eastern and Midwestern cities. “Martha,” the last of her species, died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914.
A plump dodo, with huge bill, in profile, before other extinct birds


The dodo, a pigeon-family bird that lived and died on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, has come to symbolize both death (“dead as a dodo”) and extinction. The island lacked mammals, so the bird was unfamiliar with their rapacious ways, making it easy prey for hungry sailors who arrived in 1598. The dodo was gone by 1662, or perhaps a few years later. With such a quick extinction, it’s impossible to know precisely the bird’s appearance or behavior, but it was about one meter tall and apparently not fearful enough for its own good. A wide range of other animals on Mauritius went extinct, including the Mauritian duck and the Round Island burrowing boa. And although the dodo came to exemplify the idea that people could eat birds to extinction, introduced monkeys, rats and cats may have played a bigger role, says Temple.
“Edward’s Dodo,” painted by Roelant Savery, in 1626 Public Domain
Photo: Short, squat pigeon with wings flexed; tail feathers are bright pink, breast pinkish-white, bird has band on leg.

Pink Pigeon

A relative of the dodo shows how a bird can resist extermination through clever chemistry. The pink pigeon ate tropical fruits loaded with toxic alkaloids and was the only pigeon species on Mauritius not hunted to extinction. “Once the report got out that you would became deathly ill if you ate the pink pigeon, it survived,” says Temple, a professor emeritus of wildlife ecology. As a young ornithologist on Mauritius, Temple had a taste of the pigeon’s menacing meals. “Whenever I saw a bird feeding on something, I would pluck a piece of fruit and touch it to my tongue,” he says. “I saw a pigeon eat several fruits and picked one on the tip of my tongue, and most of my throat and mouth went numb, like I’d been shot with Novocain.” Although the pink pigeon survived, and hundreds live in captivity, it is endangered by habitat loss.
Illustration of long-legged, long-beaked birds on a rock and grass; one bird lies on its back, presumably dead

Eskimo curlew

The Eskimo curlew almost certainly met its demise via a hungry market. Possibly the most numerous migratory bird in North America, their numbers plummeted in the late 1800s after market hunters targeted them as the supply of passenger pigeons petered out. Large flocks of curlews migrated south along the Eastern Seaboard to the Caribbean and South America, then back north through Texas and the Great Plains, where, according to some accounts, millions were slaughtered annually. Although the species hasn’t been seen, officially, since the 1960s, occasional sightings are claimed.
Painting by John James Audubon
Illustration of three waterfowl -- a black and white male, brown female and juvenile -- wading in chilly waters and perched on floating ice.

Labrador duck

Cold winters in New York spelled trouble for the hapless Labrador duck, which wintered along the New England coast and Long Island Sound. Wintering waterfowl were a big source of meat supplied to New York City markets. Although the Labrador duck wasn’t the tastiest tidbit on the menu, its conspicuous plumage made it an easy target. The last one was seen on Long Island Sound in 1875.
Illustrated by J.G. Keulemans, Rowley’s Ornithological Miscellany Vol II
Drawing of two large ostrich-like birds in a tropical landscape, unaware of the looming Maori hunter brandishing a spear from behind a tree. 

Giant moa

When Polynesian settlers called the Maori landed on the islands of New Zealand around 1280, they encountered several endemic species of moas: large, wingless cousins of the ostrich. Confined to islands, and never knowing humans, the moas were easy prey for the Maori. Even the topographically and ecologically diverse landscape of New Zealand couldn’t curb the hunters’ excess success. Radiocarbon dating shows all species of moa were hunted to extinction within 200 years of Maori arrival. Not a single species in the moa genus survived the 15th century, not even these 12-foot-tall giants.
From Extinct Monsters: A popular account of some of the larger forms of ancient animal life, by Rev. H. N. Hutchinson, 1896.

Add it up, and you have to start wondering about the birds we love to eat. How much “love” is too much love? Lest you argue that we have learned from our history, Temple points to the bluefin tuna — a heavily fished delicacy of the sea that is, he suspects, headed for extinction. “You could superimpose the trajectory of the passenger pigeon’s decline on this modern day example, which we are exploiting with deadly efficiency,” he says. “It reminds me of the passenger pigeon, where the simple answer is that we killed ’em and ate ’em.”

– David J. Tenenbaum & Kevin D. Barrett

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Kevin Barrett, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer


  1. Dodo, a lá Wiki.
  2. Pacific island birds: 1,000 species gone!