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The passenger pigeon: a comprehension worksheet   Leave a comment

This is a blog post aimed at 11-12-year-olds. It is a 3-class comprehension exercise that explores the most shocking extinction of an animal in recent times. By the end of the exercises, it may lead into higher order  debates about whether we should bring back the passenger pigeon through genetic coding and the risks that entails.

It is from my new book, ‘Blue-Sky Thinking 1’, the prequel to ‘Blue-Sky Thinking’. I will be uploading the full book free on my blog sometime around February or March. It is a fill-in-the-blank workbook with a heavy emphasis on descriptive writing exercises. The solution workbook will be posted separately on the same site on the same day.

I hope you enjoy the post and that it inspires the disbelief and wonder in your students that it did for me. It really is a sad tale in many ways. I also hope the grid at the end of the exercises comes out properly. Forgive me if it doesn’t.


                              Exercise number 1

“Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several people dropped on their knees and prayed”.

This quote is based on a true story. The full story will be revealed later in the book. In the meantime, answer these questions. They will require imagination and creativity, and perhaps some of the key words in the text will give you clues. Do not be afraid to be wrong. Not in your wildest dreams could you imagine what took place on that strange, strange day…………

  1. What do you suspect might have caused such panic that day? Think about it for 5-10 minutes and write down 10 possibilities. The best, imaginative answers, as agreed by the class, should get homework off.
  2. What country did this event take place in?
  3. What year and century did this event take place in?
  4. Write a story based on this event starting with the passage at the top of the place. Include some of the vocabulary you have learned from the book already. Make sure to use paragraphs in order to give your story structure.
  5. Can you quickly write a paragraph on the strangest story you’ve ever heard? Then be able to relate the story to the class tomorrow as the narrator. A narrator is a storyteller.


Maybe you could use ideas from this template to help you structure your essay:

Introduction: Describe the scene in the town or village. What are the buildings made of? How many people are there? What century is it? What type of clothes are people wearing? Can you describe some of the activities in the town or village?

Paragraph 1: Add a splash of colour and the clang of sound. What is the colour of the fields surrounding the town? Is there a meadow or mountains in the distance? Can you picture a forest in your mind’s eye?

Paragraph 2: Describe what you think made all these people run for their lives. Your imagination is limitless so any answer you come up with is bound to be great. Make sure you take your time planning the best answer and writing down ideas about how your story will unfold. Was it a man or a group of men? Did it come from the sky or was it some type of unknown monster? Was it a weather event? Whatever it was, describe it well and in detail.

Paragraph 3: Describe the panic in the town. What was the expression on people’s faces? Where did everyone run to? Did anyone save the town? Were you there? If so, you will be writing in the first person, which is you. If you take a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the story unfolding, it is in the third person.

Conclusion: Did someone or something save these people? Did they all die? Wrap up your story with an interesting twist for the reader if you can.

1st person storyteller: Uses the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ in a story.

2nd person storyteller: Uses the words ‘you’ in a story.

3rd person storyteller: Uses the words ‘he/she’ or ‘they’.



 Exercise number 2: part 1

“Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for……”

This is an account of a flock of passenger pigeons who flew overhead. It happened in 1855 in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States of America. The flock was described as a “feathered tempest” and a “growing cloud” that blotted out the sun as it approached.

To fully understand the impact these huge flocks had on the people below, and the wonder and awe they inspired, let us look at some of their features. A French soldier who explored America in the 17th century said: “The Bishop has been forc’d to excommunicate them oftner than once, upon the account of the Damage they do to the Product of the Earth.”

This quote refers to the pigeons eating the crops of the early settlers in America. They even attacked the fields of one of the first English colonies in America 100 years later, nearly causing the colonisers to starve. This colony was called the Plymouth colony.

The American Indians had always hunted the passenger pigeons when they could. They would use the flesh as food and burn the squabs (young pigeons) for their oil. The oil was then used as butter. They could never depend on the pigeon arriving, however. Each year, they moved to a different part of America, depending on where the most food was.

The pigeon was a truly remarkable bird. It’s average flight speed over huge distances was 62 miles per hour if there was no wind. It could have flown from America to Europe in 3 days if it was a migratory bird. Putting it in simpler terms, the island of Ireland is 302 miles long. They could have overflown it in 5 hours. Today, only the great snipe, who migrates from Sweden to Central Africa, can match their speed and endurance.

These pigeons had huge roosts, or nesting sites. Their chief source of food were chestnuts, acorns from the oak tree and beech nuts (called beech mast). They had great eyesight, so they could spot if a forest was bountiful or not from the air. If it was, they would swoop down with a frightening sound, terrifying the wild boar and birds and animals that fed on them.

The pigeons could eat about 100 grams of acorns or nuts in a day. After eating their fill, they could store at least 17 acorns or 34 beech nuts in their crop, a sort of pouch in their throat. Much like the way cows have four stomachs to digest their food, the pigeon would let it digest in its crop over the next 12 hours. If they were nesting, they would feed it to their young. It came out as a sort of paste, like toothpaste, even though it is called ‘pigeon milk’.

A roosting tree averaged 80 nests in each. One tree was counted and held 317 nests. Tree branches cracked and entire trees crashed to the ground with the weight of the birds. One roosting site measured 850 square miles and held 136,000,00 nests. That’s bigger than the county of Kilkenny. It’s also bigger than any of the smallest 18 counties in Ireland.

In 1860, a flock estimated at 3,700,000,000 flew over Wisconsin. In 1866, a flock 300 miles long and 1-mile-wide, took 14 hours to pass. By 1878, only one large nesting site was left.

By 1890, they were rare. By 1900, the passenger pigeon was extinct in the wild.

Martha, the last one in the world, died in Cincinnati zoo in 1914. In her final days, she lived alone. Her wings drooped and she trembled. Visitors kept throwing sand at her to make her move. Her keepers had to rope off her cage to stop them.

The most plentiful bird in the world was gone forever and would never return.


Exercise number 2: part 2

  1. “Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.”             Benjamin Franklin

Based on that proverb, do you think all of this story is true? Why? Why not?

  1. What surprised you the most about the information in this passage? Explain why.
  2. What happened to eliminate the passenger pigeon so quickly? How long did it take?
  3. Are there any lessons for the future to be learned from the passenger pigeon?


John James Audobon, naturalist, autumn 1813:

“The air was literally filled with Pigeons. The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of the wings had a tendency to lull my soul to repose.”

3 days later, the pigeons were still flying past John James Audobon.


Simon Pokagon, a tribal leader, May 1850 (writing in 1895)

“… an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the forest towards me. As I listened more intently, I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses, it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm and beautiful. It came nearer and nearer. While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving towards me, in an unbroken front, millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.”

He described how the flock would swoop and plummet to avoid hawks and “pour its living mass” hundreds of feet into a downward plunge.

“I have stood by the grandest waterfall in America, yet never have my astonishment, wonder and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”


The Commonwealth newspaper, reporting the experience of a group of hunters in Wisconsin in 1871. The hunters came upon the pigeons leaving their nests in the morning to seek food. The noise was so loud, most of them dropped their guns.

“Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, accompanied by as many steamboats groaning off steam, with an equal quota of trains passing through covered bridges- imagine these massed into a single flock, and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar.”


Aldo Leopold, ‘On a Monument to the Pigeon’, 1945.

“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons: trees still live, who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence, only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”


Exercise number 3: part 1

Reasons for the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

The history of slaughter doesn’t explain it: In 1771, 50,000 pigeons were shipped from a town in one day. They may have been used for human food or pig fodder. In 1822, one family killed 4,000 pigeons in one day. The feathers were valued for pillows and bedding. Big tunnel nets could take 3,500 at a time. Even gun clubs got in on the act. They were trapped and shipped live. Perhaps this is where the term ‘clay pigeon’ comes from. One competition for shooting released pigeons took 30,000 kills to win the 1st prize! Even still, there could have been as many as 10 billion left by the 1850’s. The pigeons could double their numbers even in a bad year.

The way they flied: Sometimes the passenger pigeons flew just 3 feet above the ground. This might be because they were flying over a river or because there was no wind above. People would use clubs, poles, rocks and nets to catch them. These ‘super flocks’ hardly noticed the people trying to kill them as they were all massed together.

The way they nested: The passenger pigeon nested in ‘super roosts’, as we have seen. In the 1878 roost, 50,000 birds were killed every day for 5 months. One shotgun blast into a tree killed 61 birds. The trees were burned down to make the young birds fall out of their nests. Burning sulphur was used to choke them and they would fall to the ground with a fizzling sound and crack open.

The population boom in America: For centuries, people from around the world had been emigrating to America. From Ireland alone, there could have been as many as 2 million in the time of the Great Famine and its aftermath, 1845-1855. People fled religious persecution, wars, overpopulated countries, and to live a better life. This meant that isolated areas the pigeons depended on for food were being cleared for farmland. The era of the ‘super roost’ was nearly over.

The railroad: The first railroad opened in America was in 1830, from Baltimore to Ohio. By 1861, there were very few parts of America that people couldn’t reach by rail. The amount of timber required to build the lines, melt the iron, house the workers and set up new towns was staggering. Whole forests were burned to feed the need for progress and civilisation.

The telegraph: The first commercial telegraph was established by 1845. It was called the Electric Telegraph Company. By 1861, a network stretching from the East coast to the West coast was complete. Professional hunters, as many as 3,000 of them, now followed the super flocks wherever they went. They would get a telegraph telling them where the pigeons were and descend on the roosts. In the last great roost, 50,000 pigeons were killed every day for 5 months. Technology was killing the pigeon. Combined with human greed, it was a lethal mix.

Other reasons: By the mid-90’s, a few small flocks remained. Maybe it was the stress of being constantly hunted and witnessing their chicks burned out every year that finally did it. There was still plenty of food. Perhaps a disease not known to us helped to kill them off also. No-one to this day can be certain how a breed of bird with one flock numbering 3.7 billion could be extinct in the wild within 40 years. Maybe mankind finally put paid to them. The passenger pigeon is a valuable metaphor for how we look after the planet and its species. Whether we like to think about it or not, we are the caretakers of this magnificent planet of ours. Nature will have its revenge on us if we keep destroying it. TI: ‘Why the Passenger Pigeon went Extinct’ to and look at the comments for more information.


Exercise number 3: part2

Description of a Passenger Pigeon Flock by an Eyewitness: 1st person narration

They say they are gone now, the flying ants of the air. They say there was a time when they could block out the sun and send men and women screaming for the Lord to save them. They say they killed them with pitchforks and potatoes and poisoned them with whiskey-soaked corn until none were left. I can’t comment on such things but I can, in the winter of my life, tell you about the day I saw it for myself.

I could never forget that day. Even now, with the brain fog swirling in me, and my loved ones long passed away, I can never forget. It is burned in my mind’s eye the same way the autumn sun shone that day. I remember it so well for I have never seen a sun like it, since or before. It hung like a pale globe in the sky, giving off ore-gold lines of light. The very air shone like earthlight and I felt like I had stepped into the pages of a fairytale.

The forest was full of sound when I entered it. Far away, I could hear wild boar munching and champing on the seasonal feast of acorns and beech mast. There was an opera of birdsong coming from the tree’s canopy. It was an old, old forest, a sleeping soul long before man had first stepped onto its soil. The trees were rust-brown and spread their arms high into the Babylon-blue sky. The once-green leaves had all burned into hot-oranges and bonfire-reds. There was a carpet of mulch on the floor and it smelled organic and musty. When fingers of light poked through the trees and hit it, it sent a phantom-grey mist up in the air.

I inhaled deeply, enjoying the earthy cologne of the forest. My lungs were young and mint fresh back then. I could sniff out a crop of acorns or a blueberry bush from quite a way out. The forest was full of such scents, even though the first thumbs of frost hung in the lightless shadows. Sitting on a log by the river bank, I let the tutti-fruity smalls wash over me. The river chattered in its ancient tongue, the voice of bells and water. Scooping a handful of its bounty, my teeth tingled with its tundra-cold taste. I lay back, enjoying the melody of the river.

I must have fallen asleep, for when I awoke, the forest was womb-silent. Nothing stirred, nothing sang, nothing sounded. Then I heard a trembling in the air. The last of the leaves fluttered and flapped to the ground, as if an unseen hand had pushed them there. A whirring sound came to my ears and the droning of a million bees’ nests filled the forest. Deer, boar and bears ran past me, in fear of their lives. I heard a flapping sound then. If I was asked later, I described it as the sound of a winter wind chasing a bird down a chimney, but loud enough to make me cover my ears. It came in a mighty rush and I thought it must be either a forest fire or the End of days.

Then the fingers of light disappeared and a mighty cloud plunged the forest into darkness. I heard a pok-pok-pok sound and my head was hit twice by unknown objects. When I reached up and felt for it, I thought I was indeed injured. There was a mercury-red stain, but it was white also. When the first pigeon came into my sight, he was followed by a hundred of his fellows, then a thousand. They filled my vision, more of them than the stars in the night sky, blotting out the world as I knew it. The sound was worse than the greatest hurricane I have ever walked through and my eardrums were ready to burst. They cooed and flapped, purred and pooped, gorging on the acorns and beech nuts.

Never considered a wise man, this day I believe I was. I ran. Like the boar and the bears, I ran through a blizzard of poop and the world’s greatest legion of pigeons.

They didn’t even move while I dashed through them. I couldn’t hear the sound of their wings snapping or their necks cracking. I felt it through my moccasins, though, and the feeling sickens me to this day. Feathers flew in front of my face and I lost all sense of direction as the sky was no longer a compass for me. There was no sky! The only sensations I had were the splatter of poop on my face and how it burned my skin. I know not for how long I ran, but it was the longest race of my life.

Finally, I made it to the fringe of the forest and burst into a clearing. I could see the foreheads of the mountains in the distance and how they were creased with snow. My lungs were still heaving like a bellows and my face felt like there was a layer of lava on it. I rubbed off the grime with water from my canteen and kept moving. The noise from the forest was still a crescendo and it was not until I had raced a mile away that I felt comfortable.

Looking back, I saw that they had taken their fill from the forest. Rising into the air like the breath of a dragon, they wheeled and looped in the sky. Then they straightened and flew over my head at an astonishing pace. I could see that they had slate-blue bodies and a coppery underside, for many dropped to my feet if I but lifted my arms. I stood there for hours, marvelling at their numbers. Never have I felt so alive as in that moment, with the thrumming of wings washing over me like the rumbling of thunder.

A thought came to me then that if the End of Days really did arrive, these would be the last creatures left alive on God’s great earth. Such were their numbers. Such was their power.

  1. Looking back at the full module on the passenger pigeon, what are your thoughts on it?
  2. Did you think this was an accurate recreation of what it might have been like to see them? What do you think the passage might have missed in its description?
  3. Write down your favourite 5 sentences from the passage and say why you liked them.
  4. There are attempts to bring back the passenger pigeon through genetics. Would you support such attempts or do you think it is ‘playing God’ like Jurassic Park?
  5. In the 1st column below, write in the rarest birds, animals or amphibians in your country. Did you know that 13% of birds, 25% of mammals and 41% of amphibians are under threat of extinction worldwide? If they are under threat, put them down as human failures.
  6. Write out a list of ideas (with your partner) that might help save endangered species.
  7. Are there any success stories about saving or re-introducing animals in your country? Write them into the 2nd column. The 3rd column is for alien species that destroy the environment. The 4th is for a list of animals you would like to see re-introduced (re-wilding).


I hope you enjoyed the post.


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