May 6, 2015 at 6:00pm
Margaret Allen Friend

Passenger Pigeon

Did you know that the last wild passenger pigeon now nests at Millikin? The bird’s wings were, shall we say, permanently clipped in March 1901 near Oakford, Ill., and shortly thereafter, the specimen was stuffed and mounted by Oliver Biggs, a taxidermist in San Jose, Ill.

Upon Biggs’ death in 1947, his taxidermy collection was divided between his daughters, one of whom was a 1926 Millikin graduate. Olive Biggs subsequently donated more than 200 of her father’s specimens to Millikin, including owls, eagles and the passenger pigeon now christened “Big Blue.”

Possession of Big Blue is quite a feather in MU’s cap. The last known passenger pigeon, a captive bird named Martha, died in 1914. She is on display in the Smithsonian Institution as part of the exhibit, “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America.” However, Big Blue can be seen right here at Millikin, in the William Andrew Kuhnke Museum on the first floor of Leighty-Tabor Science Center.

Last January, Big Blue traveled to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago with Dr. David Horn, an associate professor of biology at MU. At that event, Horn spoke of Big Blue’s historic significance.

“This was considered to be the most abundant species in North America and possibly globally,” Horn says. “Flocks of passenger pigeons were estimated to comprise more than one billion birds; flocks so large they would block out the sky for hours.”

But by 1914, they were extinct, due to multiple factors including overhunting and habitat loss.

“September 1 marked the 100th anniversary of their extinction,” Horn says. “That’s one reason Big Blue is currently getting so much attention. I think he had more photos taken during that one day at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum than he’d had in his previous 100 years.”

Big Blue flies from his MU coop again next Jan. 18, returning to Decatur’s Rock Springs Nature Center as part of an Audubon Society presentation. Preening for display in the exhibit is the least he can do, since the Decatur Audubon Society provided funding for a vitrine and base for the bird’s exhibit at Leighty-Tabor. (The vitrine is a clear barrier that surrounds Big Blue’s case, providing protection against ultraviolet light.)

“The Audubon Society graciously provided Big Blue with long-term protection so he will continue to be here for the next hundred years,” Horn says.  

The Pigeon Connection: MU alumni apparently have a love for pigeons.

In 2009, Lucas Martell ’03 hatched the animated short film, “Pigeon: Impossible.” Join the 10+ million viewers who have watched it on YouTube.

This June, Laramie Street ’10 and Rayanna Martin ’12 opened Sincerely Pigeon Studio, a home décor and furniture business in Mt. Zion, Ill.

Margaret Allen Friend is associate editor of Millikin Quarterly magazine.