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Passenger Pigeons in the Red River Valley


A long time ago, countless multitudes of passenger pigeons migrated through the Red River Valley in search of food. The trees along the Red River were roosting-places, full of commotion and loud noises. The wing-feathers clattered before landing on tree-branches, and the pigeons would call out “KEE-kee-kee-kee,” and “coo-coo-coo-coo.” Thousands of flapping wings sounded like a “roar of distant thunder.”


These pigeons were wanderers, wandering continuously -- searching for acorns, berries, elm-seeds, weed-seeds, grasshoppers, snails, and angleworms. Hence the term passenger pigeons -- passing through woodlands. North Dakota was at the western limits of their range.


Much larger than mourning doves, male passenger pigeons were also more colorful; “light blue” on their heads, with neck and sides a blend of “gold, emerald green, and rich crimson.” The birds had beautiful sparkling-red eyes.

Passenger pigeons were called “blue meteors” for their “greyish-blue” bodies and fantastic flying-speeds -- 60 miles-per-hour. To fly so fast, the pigeons had massive breast muscles to create great power of flight in their long migrations. These muscles were their strength, and their weakness, for the dark flesh was much sought-after as food for Native-Americans and settlers.


On this date in 1804 in Pembina, fur-trader Alexander Henry the Younger wrote in his journal: “Extraordinary number of wild pigeons; I never before saw so many.”


Indeed, in 1800, Henry had previously-noted: “Pigeons were in great numbers, the trees were every moment covered with them.”


In later decades, Donald Murray said: “I remember when I used to see flocks of pigeons following the course of the Red River which were so large that the front of each flock was out of sight in the north whilst the tail was out of sight in the south.”


Likewise, in 1873, military man Elliott Coues wrote “countless flocks of wild pigeons pervaded the atmosphere of the Red River Valley . . . . we observed them continually during our voyage down the river, and . . . at Pembina streaming through the air in endless succession of flocks. They generally flew high, far above gunshot, but in early morning and just before nightfall often came low enough to afford a shot. The woods along the river were filled with the stragglers which of course could be easily secured.”


Alas, market-hunters relentlessly killed so many passenger pigeons that the flocks were devastated by the 1880s, and these wild pigeons were extinct soon after.


Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department



Elliott Coues, ed., New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest: The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry, Fur Trader of the Northwest Company, Volume 1 (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1897), p. 243, 44.

Elliott Coues, Key to North American Birds (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1887), p. 565-566.

Elliott Coues, “Field-Notes on Birds Observed in Dakota and Montan Along the Forty-Ninth Parallel During the Seasons of 1873 and 1874,” in Bulletin of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, Volume IV, No. 3, July 29, 1878 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1878), p. 628.

Ernest Thompson Seton, The Birds of Manitoba (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, G.P.O., 1891), p. 522-523.

John James Audubon, The Birds of America, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: R.L. Carey and A. Hart, 1832), p. 319-320, 325, 326, 327.

Thomas S. Roberts, The Birds of Minnesota (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1932), p. 577.

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