Passenger pigeons once blackened St. Paul’s skies

Harvesting the bounty. Public domain: The Illustrated Shooting & Dramatic News, 1875.

In 1852, Benjamin Hoyt settled his family on a farm in Rose Township on what is now the northern portion of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Hoyt Avenue was platted in 1872 in honor of Hoyt, a Methodist preacher and land speculator, and the family was prominent in the area well into the 20th century. The Hoyt Nursery was a fixture at Hamline and Hoyt avenues for many years.

But initially, the elder Hoyt built a cabin of tamarack logs in what is now downtown St. Paul and it was there that one of his sons, 8-year-old William, witnessed one of nature’s most spectacular events, which he recounted for readers of the St. Paul Globe newspaper a half-century later.

“At the time of our arrival and for some years thereafter the country about St. Paul was quite wild and primitive,” recalled William Hoyt, by now a 60-year-old Civil War veteran and co-founder of the Minnesota Territorial Pioneers organization.

“I well remember that while we were living in the cabin at Eighth and Jackson in, I think, the fall of 1849, we saw a most phenomenally large flight of wild pigeons. It is an actual fact, as the old settlers will remember, that the sky was actually obscured for over an hour from beyond Dayton’s Bluff to Fort Snelling by the immense flock of the birds. From Little Crow’s village (South St. Paul) well up to the Falls of St. Anthony, a practically solid mass of pigeons filled the air. A single discharge of an old flint-lock musket would bring down two or three birds every time.”

Hoyt was talking about the passenger pigeon, slightly larger than a mourning dove, with a bluish-gray head and rump, slate-gray back and wine-red breast. At its peak, the passenger pigeon may have been the most numerous bird on earth, numbering in the billions. Up until the mid-19th century, breeding colonies in the forests of the eastern United States spread over thousands of acres. During the rest of the year, the birds wandered in huge flocks, sometimes comprised of millions of birds, far into the West, the South and Canada.

In the early 1800s, John James Audubon, the renowned wildlife artist, wrote that he had encountered such a flock while traveling in Kentucky. He recounted that the pigeons blackened the sky overhead and continued to do so for the entire 55 miles of his trip.

Martha, the last living passenger pigeon. Photo is public domain. Photographer unknown.

At midcentury, wild pigeons were being commercially hunted and killed in prodigious numbers to provide cheap food to the growing cities of the East. It was commonly believed that the supply was inexhaustible.

Johan Hvoslef, a pioneer ornithologist and doctor, who lived and practiced medicine in Lanesboro, Fillmore County, recorded Minnesota’s last pigeon sighting in 1896.

But by the time William Hoyt saw his flock, the population of passenger pigeons had started a decline—deforestation also played a role—which ultimately proved catastrophic. Johan Hvoslef, a pioneer ornithologist and doctor, who lived and practiced medicine in Lanesboro, Fillmore County, recorded Minnesota’s last pigeon sighting in 1896.

“Martha,” believed to be the world’s sole surviving passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 and her species passed into extinction.

Thomas S. Roberts, an early director of the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, offered an epitaph of sorts: “The story of the extermination of the Wild Pigeon is a tragic recital of almost unbelievable slaughter, …”

Roberts wrote in 1932 in his landmark work, Birds of Minnesota. “It has no parallel among American land-birds and probably has none anywhere in the world.”

Roger Bergerson writes about area history from his Como Park home.

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