Written by Karyne Belanger
At the time of European settlement in Toronto, the Mississaugas were the occupants of the land, and had already given names to the area’s rivers and streams. “Mimico” the name of Toronto’s waterfront neighbourhood and its nearby creek, is an adaptation of its Ojibway name Omiimiikaa, which means “place of the wild pigeon.”
The wild pigeons, known as passenger pigeons, were once a thriving bird species.It is estimated that at the peak of their population, there were five billion passenger pigeons in Turtle Island, consisting of forty percent of the continent’s entire bird population.
In the Winter they would live in the southern hardwood forests of the United States. In Spring they would migrate to Ontario in flocks so great they would reportedly block the sun and darken the sky. Upon their arrival, the mass flights would break up into separate flocks, and each flock would return to the same nesting places year after year.
The diversified hardwood and evergreen forest bordering Mimico Creek was a preferred and busy nesting place for the birds because of its abundance of seeds, nuts, berries and roots. Sometimes a flock would occupy over a square kilometer within the forest. Every tree would have so many nests that their branches often broke under the weight of the multiple young birds.
Sadly, such an iconic member of our ecosystem’s history is now hardly known today. The passenger pigeon species became extinct in a stunningly short period of time. As settlement progressed, so many birds were killed every season that their numbers became fewer year after year.
The passenger pigeon had been a significant part of the Aboriginal peoples’ diet. Their bodies were smoked and dried to be preserved for Winter. Unfortunately, at the time of settlement, they began to be hunted in excess to feed the growing population. Just as lethal as their hunting was the destruction of forests, as the deforestation removed their nesting grounds. The birds were then attracted to the crops that replaced the forests, and were further killed in significant numbers when the crops were mowed.
The recognition of their endangered state came too late and the efforts to save the species were unsuccessful. The passenger pigeon was officially announced extinct in 1914.
In Toronto, you can see a stuffed passenger pigeon at the Royal Ontario Museum.