Market Hunting

North Americans today get most of their food from industrial agriculture companies. This has led to a standardization of foods consumed. In the preceding centuries, the European settlers ate a wide variety of natural foods. This menu surprises people today for it includes songbirds such as robins, flickers, meadowlarks, cardinals, phoebes, buntings and warblers. Many meals had wild birds and animals provided by local hunters or market hunters. Market hunters shot wild game and sent it to the burgeoning cities of North America. The expansion of the railroad systems in the last half of the 19th century allowed easier transport of the game to the eastern seaboard cities.

Perhaps the best example of the effects of market hunting is illustrated by the penultimate passenger pigeon breeding colony that occurred in south central Wisconsin in 1871. Passenger pigeons flew in immense flocks and descended to nest in fantastic numbers. The Wisconsin colony was 75 miles long and 10 to 15 miles wide and had an estimated 136 million birds. It is interesting to note that a flock 20 times larger had been described by Alexander Wilson. As news spread of the colony, thousands of hunters descended on the pigeons. The hunters used guns, lit smoky or sulfurous fires under the trees to suffocate the birds or chopped down trees. Farmers let loose hogs to feed on the crippled squabs and adult birds laying dead or dying on the ground. Within two months, the nesting colony was entirely disrupted. Millions of birds were shipped to awaiting markets at a cost of 15 to 25 cents per dozen.

As the passenger pigeons disappeared, market hunters turned to the prodigious numbers of shorebirds that migrated across America. These birds included the golden plover, upland plover, Hudsonian godwit and Eskimo curlew. Within two decades these birds too were poised on the brink of extinction.

As the flocks disappeared, calls increased for their protection. The American Ornithological Union (AOU), the Audubon Society and the Izaak Walton league were among the organizations lobbying for protection. Some states started adopting the AOU's Model Law for bird protection in the 1880's. It wasn't until Federal laws, such as the Lacey Act of 1900, the Weeks-McLean Act and Federal tariff Act of 1913 were enacted that meaningful protection began.