The Passenger Pigeons was once the most numerous bird species in North America, perhaps in the world. Early colonists were amazed by the vast flocks of the birds, which sometimes darkened the sky for days. On a trip from Louisville to Henderson, Kentucky, John James Audubon wrote, “The air was literally filled with Pigeons”, and that “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 senses to repose.”
These flocks of Passenger Pigeons could contain hundreds of millions, if not billions, of birds. By the 1870s, Passenger Pigeons could still be seen in large numbers, but a mere 40 years later, only two of the birds remained, Martha and George (named after President and Mrs. Washington). After George died, Martha was the only bird of the species left.
In 1899, her caretakers at the Cincinnati Zoo offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find a mate for her, but no-one ever succeeded. Martha lived to be 29 years old, but on September 1, 1914 (100 years ago today), she was found dead in her enclosure — the very last of her species.
Martha, mounted, is now on display at the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, as part of the exhibit, “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America”, from now until October 2015, to commemorate the centennial of her death. The exhibit includes mounted specimens of three other extinct avian species — the Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen. Running in conjunction with “Once There Were Billions” is “The Lost Bird Project” by artist Todd McGrain, at the Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens, from March 27, 2015 through May 15, 2015.
It’s nearly impossible to understand that these birds were so plentiful at one time, but habitat loss and overhunting was too much for the species. It’s so sad to think that we humans were the main cause that led to the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a species that migrated in flocks of billions, now not a single living bird left on the planet. Interestingly, especially with this year’s centennial, there has been discussion and even some progress about a “de-extinction” program for the Passenger Pigeon, and perhaps for other species, such as the Mammoth. But it concerns me to think that such a program might cause people to be less concerned, rather than more concerned, about species conservation and the threat of extinction, and it also does not take into account an environment that has been without billions of one species for more than a century. There are many questions to ask ourselves now, as we remember Martha and the billions of other Passenger Pigeons who filled our skies.
Some of my favourite quotes about bird conservation, as we remember the legacy of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon:
“They were here when we came, the birds which are a part of the American picture. They watched the cabins going up in the clearing at Plymouth, knew the secret of the lost people of Roanoke, clung in wide-eyed silence in the woods during the battles for freedom, moved out when cities grew, moved back again when gardens and bird pools and feeding stands said ‘welcome’ and meant it. These birds are as much a part of America as its trees, its plains, its waters, its history, its shores, its hills, yet they are only as permanent as we choose—only as permanent, in fact, as the trees, the waters, the soil itself. They all are linked in the great picture of the American whole—a picture which is determined by the preserving or the squandering of the land and its inhabitants.”
Virginia S. Eifert, from her essay, “These Birds Are America”, 1945
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“Out of the blending of human and animal stories comes the theme that I hope is inherent in all my books: that man is an inescapable part of all nature, that its welfare is his welfare, that to survive, he cannot continue acting and regarding himself as a spectator looking on from somewhere outside.”
Fred Bodsworth (1918-2012), Canadian naturalist and author of Last of the Curlews
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“Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons; and, moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with dollars and cents. . . [T]o lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, …. why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.”
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“Without birds, nature would lose her voice and the planet its most engaging envoys. Birds matter precisely because they matter to us. Environment is a concept. Nature a label. Birds are real, elements that live within our sensory plane. They spread their wings and bridge the gap between our world and the natural world.”
Pete Dunne, author and birding ambassador/former longtime director of the Cape May (NJ) Bird Observatory, in reply to the question posed by Audubon Magazine editors, “Why Do Birds Matter?”, March 2013
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“It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”