Answer Man

Pardon my French, but that’s not what pigeon name means

Martha the passenger pigeon is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Martha the passenger pigeon is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Q. In last Tuesday’s Today in History column in the BND, it noted the 1914 death of Martha, the last “passenger” pigeon in captivity. Exactly who rode on Martha? She must have been huge! Too bad Mid-America Airport wasn’t around back then. What a coup that would have been if they could have contracted with Martha to fly in and out of there! But, seriously, I always thought they also were known as carrier pigeons.

— Gary S., of Millstadt

A. You probably won’t believe this, but passenger pigeons were indeed much, much larger early in their evolutionary history.

Eons ago when his car was in the shop, Fred Flintstone would hop on one and fly off to his work at the Slate Rock and Gravel Co. In fact, the modern ride-sharing company Uber took its name from the fact that these Rodan-like creatures could fly “über” (German for “over”) any prehistoric traffic jam caused by T-Rexes roaming the freeway. Yes, it would have been quite a coup for our local airport — and it likely would have kept local car washes happy, too.

Well, as I said, you probably wouldn’t believe it. In truth, this is another example of people mangling a foreign word to such an extent that the error in pronunciation goes mainstream in the new language. As best experts can determine, “passenger” was how the English came to sloppily pronounce the French “passager.” Basically the French word means to “wander about” or “pass by in a fleeting manner.” It certainly described these birds to a T. Not only, like other birds, did they make seasonal moves, they also tended to mass in whatever spot they found best for feeding and breeding. But over the years, “passager” turned into “passenger.”

As you’re likely aware, their mispronounced name is but a minor part of their sad, rapid road to extinction. According to the Chipper Woods Bird Observatory in Indianapolis, the passenger pigeon may have been the most numerous bird on the planet at one time as it made its home in the billion acres of forest east of the Rocky Mountains.

“Their flocks, a mile wide and up to 300 miles long, were so dense that they darkened the sky for hours and days as the flock passed overhead,” according to A.W. Schroger’s book “The Passenger Pigeon.” “Population estimates from the 19th century ranged from 1 billion to close to 4 billion individuals. Total populations may have reached 5 billion individuals and comprised up to 40 percent of the total number of birds in North America.”

The bird, roughly 15 inches long, was made for flight, too. Estimates are that it could reach speeds of at least 60 or 70 mph. But as Americans continued their westward expansion, they destroyed more and more of the birds’ natural habitat. Far worse, because they were so handy, people developed a taste for them in a big way. As early as 1857, some in the Ohio Legislature, for example, proposed a bill to protect the creature. But smug members of a Senate “select committee” were sure they knew better.

“The passenger pigeon needs no protection,” they opined. “Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”

Not-so-funny thing, less than 50 years later, the last known group of passenger pigeons was being tended by Professor Charles Otis Whitman at the University of Chicago. All were descended from the same pair, and they refused to breed. In 1902, Whitman sent Martha off to the Cincinnati Zoo. At about 1 p.m. on Sept. 1, 1914, she went to that big pigeon roost in the sky. Her body was frozen into a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was skinned, dissected, photographed and mounted. Today, it hopefully gives people pause to think when they see it in the Smithsonian’s Once There Were Billions exhibit. A memorial statue also stands at the Cincinnati Zoo.

As it turns out, Martha may not have been the last. I have no way of verifying the accuracy, but on May 15, 1915, the Chicago Broad Ax reported, “A few weeks ago the last passenger pigeon died in Chicago at the age of 27 years.” Regardless of which report is correct, a “carrier” or “messenger” pigeon is another name for homing pigeons, which are still alive and well. In fact, they are credited for playing a small role in helping win World War II, another story for the birds that I intend to write about soon for Charles Naumann, of Dupo.

Today’s trivia

In 1968, what did Testor Corp. add to its model glue to keep kids from sniffing it?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Among the first set of players inducted into the U.S. Croquet Hall of Fame in 1979 was a member of the famous Marx Brothers comedy team. Can you guess which one? Turns out it was Harpo, who was a big fan of the sport. You’re probably thinking that had to be a short acceptance speech considering he played a mute in the team’s movies. He was so good at it that people really believed he could not speak. That’s not true. In fact, George Kaufman and Moss Hart based the character Banjo on Harpo in their successful play “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in 1939 — and Harpo later played the role himself on stage, which, of course, involved talking. By the way, other early inductees into the Croquet HOF included diplomat Averell Harriman, composer Richard Rodgers, and actors Gig Young and Louis Jourdan.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.