The Passenger Pigeon – who in their billions used to blacken the skies but were driven to extinction in 40 years — is a sobering parable. Last week I learned much more about these birds, thanks to Stanley Temple, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus who has made it his mission to tell their story.
2014 marked the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Its last representative, the fabled Martha, died on September 1, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo. Temple, along with other scientists and educators from over 190 institutions pooled their resources in Project Passenger Pigeon, an international effort to raise awareness of what extinction means to us here and now.
I have been thrilled to surprise a flock of 50 wild turkeys or watch hundreds of geese passing overhead in their purposeful, migrating Vs. But none of us can begin to imagine what it must have been like when the passenger pigeons passed through.
They travelled in flocks of millions. At their most abundant, there were 3 to 5 billion in eastern North America. That’s a lot of birds. If they were put tail to beak in a row, they would have circled the earth 24 times at the equator.
They were on a perpetual airborne quest for forested areas east of the Rocky Mountains where beech nuts and acorns were having a great year. Where ever their favorite food was most abundant, they would gather in millions, fill the trees with flimsy nests, and hatch one chick, whom they would stuff till all the food on the forest floor was consumed. Then they would rise in a black cloud and disappear like smoke.
Passenger Pigeons were kept safe from decimation during their vulnerable nesting time by the element of surprise. Local people would feast on pigeon during the seemingly random feathered invasions, but never made a dent in the vast flocks — not till the development of the telegraph and rail roads.
That alignment of technology allowed the location of nesting birds to be telegraphed to professional hunters who killed with frightening ingenuity. Trains facilitated rapid arrival of hordes of hunters and then carried their kill to cities where the appetite for cheap pigeon was insatiable. 300 birds to a barrel, they were plucked, gutted and packed in ice. While their numbers lasted, 300,000 dead birds could be jammed into a single train.
Wisconsin was one of their favorite nesting areas, and in 1871 they settled to nest in an area of in the northern part of the state. Reports describe passenger pigeons in every tree in an area of 850 square miles.
Commercial hunters descended. One gun dealer alone in Sparta sold 512,000 rounds of ammunition. We know from the train shipping records that tens of millions of birds were killed and packed on trains that year from this single nesting site.
Where ever the poor passenger pigeons tried to nest and raise their young, it was a gory, free for all — till in 1902 the last wild passenger pigeon was shot in Indiana.
We’ll never see another Passenger Pigeon, but Project Passenger Pigeon Project hopes to save other species from extinction that are being overkilled today. In many cases that means overfishing.
Temple said the Blue Pike was fished to extinction in the Great Lakes in 1983.
Atlantic cod and Bluefin Tuna are in decline as vast and efficient trawler fleets scoop them out of the sea more efficiently than the Passenger Pigeon hunters could dream of. The Bluefin Tuna, prized for sushi, is now so rare that individual tunas sell for many thousands of dollars.
There are consequences to annihilating entire species.
When the passenger pigeons filled the forests, they gobbled up most of the acorns and beech nuts that littered the forest floors.
In their absence, the ranks of rodents have swelled to take advantage of all those nuts, and rodents are a crucial part of the life cycle of the ticks that pass Lyme disease to humans.
Aldo Leopold was there when it was dedicated. He said,
We meet here to commemorate the death of a species. This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.
Today the laden oaks still flaunt their burden at the sky, but the feathered lightning is no more. Worm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task which once drew thunder from the firmament.
Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live that, 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.
Do you think we can learn from our mistakes? What is your experience of extinction?