Four Letters: Theodore Roosevelt and the Final Reported Sighting of the Now-Extinct Passenger Pigeon

Four famous letters between TR and John Burroughs, both noted naturalists, dealing with this important event

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No U.S. president is more popularly associated with nature and wildlife than is Theodore Roosevelt – life-long naturalist, prodigious hunter, tireless adventurer, and visionary conservationist. As president, Roosevelt provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land, an area equivalent to the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. He initiated...

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Four Letters: Theodore Roosevelt and the Final Reported Sighting of the Now-Extinct Passenger Pigeon

Four famous letters between TR and John Burroughs, both noted naturalists, dealing with this important event

No U.S. president is more popularly associated with nature and wildlife than is Theodore Roosevelt – life-long naturalist, prodigious hunter, tireless adventurer, and visionary conservationist. As president, Roosevelt provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land, an area equivalent to the entire Eastern Seaboard from Maine to Florida. He initiated the U.S. Forest Service, and sat aside 150 national forests; he signed the Antiquities Act and pursuant to it created the first 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods; an ardent ornithologist, he set up the first 51 federal bird reservations; he named five national parks, and added lands to a sixth – Yosemite; by executive order he established the first four national game preserves, including the National Range; and the instituted first 24 reclamation, or federal irrigation, projects. As a naturalist crusader, TR’s impact went far beyond the simple accomplishments; it resulted in changing the way people thought about the need to preserve America’s natural treasures.

Nature was Theodore Roosevelt’s first passion. Long before he considered a career in politics, he had a fascination with the natural world and thought he would be a naturalist. His father, one of the founders of New York City’s Natural History Museum, encouraged his son’s curiosity. It was on a summer trip to the country that five year old TR began to hunt for plants and animals to study. At the age of seven, he began his career as a zoologist. As he recalled later, it all started when he was walking up Broadway and saw a dead seal which raised questions in the young boy’s mind: Where had it been caught, how long was it, what species of seal was it? He managed to acquire the seal’s skull, the first specimen in what he called the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.”

It was around this time that the young TR started to write natural history essays, which are the first examples of serious scientific scholarship on his part. At age nine he wrote his first long-form essay, “The Natural History of Insects.” This essay shows the observation and extraordinary memory for details that would be hallmarks of Roosevelt as a politician later in life. The area of zoology which interested him the most was ornithology. The family’s trip down the Nile in 1872 provided the fourteen year old Roosevelt with a unique opportunity. He approached the trip as an official scientific expedition for the collection of specimens for the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History. With his sister, TR prowled the shores of the Nile, observing and hunting its fowl (in fact, it was his desire to collect specimens that led to his interest in hunting). Often, he ventured further inland from the shore and the result was his essay, “Ornithology of Egypt Between Cairo and Aswan”. Roosevelt begins his essay by describing the unique ecosystem of the Nile and then launches into a detailed look at the nine “true desert birds.” He pays particular attention to coloration and daily behaviors of each species of bird and tries to compare the birds both to what he has read about them and to other birds he knows. Roosevelt continued his natural history “hobby” throughout his life, writing articles and participating in debates even during his presidency. His two best known expeditions, Africa and South America, were both sponsored scientific expeditions that, in addition to affording TR an opportunity to hunt and obtain specimens for his own collection, gathered valuable natural history data for some of the world’s most prominent museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. So as happens sometimes, the youthful passions of one individual can result in the creation of some truly wonderful things.

Roosevelt was a passionate hunter. He loved the thrill of tracking and chasing game, the skill in marksmanship, the careful and deliberate recording of his observations about each hunt, the demanding preservation of specimens, and the pleasure of capturing in rich and vibrant language this ephemeral experience so that he could share it with the world.

Roosevelt was well acquainted with the noted naturalists of the time. In 1903, he went with John Muir to Yosemite, camping and posing for pictures on Overhanging Rock at the top of Glacier Point. He had written Muir, “I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.”

John Burroughs contributed to the American understanding of nature through his large literary output, which included works about Henry David Thoreau, and his friend Walt Whitman, whom he admired. In 1903, Burroughs published an article in The Atlantic Monthly that challenged the sentimental and improbable characterizations of animals then being published by those he termed “nature fakers.” A battle lasting half a decade ensued as naturalists sided with Burroughs or with Passenger pigeons were often described as blackening the skies when their colossal flocks passed overhead. The pioneering ornithologist John James Audubon claimed to have seen a flock take three days to pass by. The birds appeared inexhaustible and were treated as such. Each year over the course of several decades, hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons were killed and trapped. They were shot for sport, commercially hunted, and even captured for use as live trapshooting targets. However, by the late 19th century the great flocks had disappeared and the last confirmed report of a wild passenger pigeon occurred on March 24, 1900, in Pike County, Ohio. The bird had been shot and killed by a young boy.

Passenger pigeons likely remained in the wild, but all subsequent sightings were unconfirmed. One person who claimed seeing the now rare species was bird watching enthusiast and President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelts owned a rustic cabin in Albemarle County, Virginia, known as Pine Knot. During a stay in May 1907, Roosevelt saw what he believed to be a small flock of passenger pigeons, the first he had seen in twenty-five years. He had cataloged a specimen as a boy and was able to compare the birds to some nearby mourning doves. Roosevelt was confident in his sighting and wrote to naturalist John Burroughs about it.

This is Roosevelt’s original correspondence with Burroughs documenting this famous episode.  It may well be the last confirmed sighting of this bird.

1) Roosevelt First Reports his sighting

Typed letter signed, May 23, 1907 – “I saw a small party of wild pigeons, the first I have seen for twenty- five years.”

2) Roosevelt Doubts His Sighting But Vows to Look For Confirmation

Typed letter signed, May 27, 1907 – “Your letter makes me a little doubtful whether I ought to speak about having seen those pigeons without some corroborative evidence. I do not think it possible I could have been mistaken, not only because there was a flock of about a dozen of them and because I saw them two or three times on the wing, but because they lit on the dead tree in such a characteristically pigeon-like attitude. The only other birds they could possibly have been were doves; but they were larger and there were plenty of doves in the neighborhood which I continually saw, and the pigeons were in a flock.   I shall write down and see if I can get any information as to anyone else having seen them.”

3) Roosevelt Continues the Investigation and Remarks on the “fallibility of human vision” in Wildlife Sightings

Typed letter signed, June 2, 1907 – “I have written down to see if I can get information about those passenger pigeons. It doesn’t seem to me possible that I was mistaken. Nevertheless, I have had one or two curious experiences of the fallibility of human vision, (once a cowpuncher and I firmly believed we had discovered a village of black prairie dogs, thanks purely to the peculiar angle with which the sunlight struck them) and just at the moment I don’t want to get into any kind of controversy as to a personal observation of mine on natural history. It may be that I have helped Long from the financial standpoint, for that lying scoundrel is too shamelessly dishonest to mind the scorn of honest men if his infamy adds to his receipts; and of course it advertises him to be in a controversy with me. But I think I have pretty well destroyed his credit with all decent men of even moderate intelligence. He is now solemnly producing affidavits that horses, moose, and the like have each been killed by wolves biting them in the heart. Affidavits are of no use when they apply to mechanical impossibilities. If he stated that he had seen a weasel kill a deer and then carry it to the top of a pine tree, I would not care how many affidavits he produced, because the feat would be mechanically impossible, and the same is true as to the instances you quote where he got affidavits to impossibilities, and as to this particular wolf feat. There is, however, no excuse whatever for journals interested in education that fail to rebuke in the sharpest possible manner the school authorities who permit their children to study or read the books of such a faker.”

4) Roosevelt Confirms the Final Reported Sighting of the Passenger Pigeon, Citing a
“colored” Friend of His as Corroboration

Typed letter signed, June 8, 1907.  “I have corroborative evidence about the wild pigeons. My close friend, Mr. Joseph Wilmer, whose farm, Plain Dealing, is a mile from Pine Knot, our little house, writes me as follows: ‘On May 12th last Dick saw a flock of about 30, followed at a short distance by about half as many, flying in a circle very rapidly between the Plain Dealing house and the woods, where they disappeared. They had pointed tails and resembled somewhat large doves – the breast and sides rather a brownish red. He had seen them before, but many years ago. I think it is unquestionably the “Passenger Pigeon” – Ectopistes migratoria – described on page 25 of the 5th volume of Audubon. I remember these pigeon roosts, as he describes them, on a smaller seals, but large flocks have not been seen in this part of Virginia for many years.”

“The Dick to whom he refers is his colored foreman, the man whom I have shot turkeys and with whom I have rambled around with in the woods a good deal.  He knows nothing of birds from books but he is a singularly close observer. I found that whatever he told me about birds I could count upon absolutely, and he is much interested in them. He and I have observed birds a good deal. It seems to me that with this bit of corroborative evidence I can be very sure I was not mistaken – indeed I can hardly see how it would be possible for me to be mistaken.”

In a 1976 article in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, biological sciences professor Alton Lindsey took up the question, “Was Theodore Roosevelt the Last to See Wild Passenger Pigeons?” He gave a thorough discussion and came to the conclusion that although no one can know for certain who saw the last wild pigeon, he felt confident in saying that TR was indeed the last trained bird observer to do so. It is extraordinary that he was at that time President of the United States!

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