John James Audubon
Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), Study for Havell pl. 62, 1824
Watercolor, pastel, graphite, gouache, black chalk, and black ink on paper, laid on card, 26 5/16 x 18 1/2 in. (66.8 x 47 cm)

The “tenderness and affection displayed by these birds towards their mates, are in the highest degree striking,” Audubon commented about the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon. Keen on describing the “love season” of many species, he depicted the pair in a courtship ritual characteristic of members of the pigeon family. Ornithologists call this “billing,” in which one of the pair regurgitates food into the bill of the other. As seen in Audubon’s watercolor, the colorful male’s spread tail is also part of his mating display.

JJA executed the watercolor in Pittsburgh in the autumn of 1824, improving on the single bird he had drawn in 1809 in Louisville, Kentucky. Pleased with his later watercolor, he included it among the slightly under one hundred that Joseph Bartholomew Kidd copied in oil to raise funds to finance The Birds of America.

Today there is no bird in America that we can observe in the countless multitudes that Audubon encountered the Passenger Pigeon. Once it was more numerous than all other avian species in America combined. Almost “solid masses” of these “Wild Pigeons,” as they were then known, flew over the banks of the Ohio River in 1813, darkening the skies for three days. “The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings” sounded like “a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel.” The “peculiar odour which emanates from the species” also filled the air. In Audubon’s day, it is estimated that five billion Passenger Pigeons inhabited Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana alone. They traveled not to breed or to escape the cold, according to JJA, but to find food. He calculated that pigeons that had been killed in New York with undigested rice in their crops, could only have eaten that food in Georgia or Carolina, proving that the species could fly “one mile in a minute” (sixty miles per hour). After depleting one area, they moved on and decimated the next. Hence farmers viewed them as a plague to be eradicated.

Audubon presciently predicted, “I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease. . . .  Here, again, the tyrant of the creation, man, interferes. . . .” One wonders whether in an uncanny fashion he envisioned their demise, and therefore depicted bare branches and withering leaves as their spare habitat. Certainly this setting commented on their devastation of foliage and crops. The last captive Passenger Pigeon died on September 14, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo. The species itself was unable to survive in small numbers in the wild.

Excerpted from Roberta J.M. Olson, Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America”

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