Passenger Pigeon Net

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Abigail Wollam

Catalog Number: 1941.001.01

This net was once used in La Crosse to capture a species that no longer exists.

Passenger pigeons were once one of the most abundant species of birds in North America. They would fly in huge flocks as a method of protection against predators.

Unfortunately, this survival strategy ultimately played a part in the rapid decline in the species’ population in the late 19th century: The large groups in which passenger pigeons traveled created easy targets for hunters looking to nab some birds.

An abundant source of food, the pigeons were killed in massive numbers.

They were shot down and trapped with nets like the one pictured.

Passenger pigeons were hunted so heavily that it was not long before their population began to dwindle. By the late 19th century, this species was rapidly heading toward extinction.

As their numbers declined, the public debated the cause. Some cited disease as a possible explanation. However, it soon became clear that human behavior was the critical factor.

And because there was little to no effort made to save the species, the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

The last passenger pigeon, Martha, was then frozen and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., for preservation. She now resides in the National Museum of Natural History and represents one of the many species that have gone extinct as a result of human actions.

While the extinction of the passenger pigeon is mostly remembered as a striking example of how human intervention can permanently alter our environment, it also played an important role in the history of environmentalism in the U.S.

During the time of the passenger pigeons, the ideas of environmentalism and conservation were still in their infancy. The pigeons’ decline and extinction helped motivate the fledgling movement. Efforts surrounding the conservation of birds at the time the passenger pigeon was going extinct ultimately led to the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918.

This net, and the accompanying “beater,” were donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society in August 1941 by Lottie Smith, and is a visual reminder of the direct and indirect ways in which Coulee Region residents interact with the natural world around them.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on August 10, 2019.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.