Goodbye, passenger pigeon; hello, wilderness

By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in 1914.

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in 1914.

On September 1, many of us were enjoying a Labor Day with no classes or work, grilling out with friends, and generally enjoying a sunny late-summer day in Salt Lake. Sadly, though, the holiday also marked a more tragic and potent anniversary. One hundred years ago, on Sept. 1, 1914, the last living passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratoriu), Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo, carrying with her the legacy of a bird that once blanketed the skies in flocks that numbered into the billions and bringing to focus the reality of human-caused species extinction.

The birds, 15 to 16 inches from head to tail and built for swift flight over long distances, were celebrated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries for their abundance and unity in flight. Bird enthusiast and painter John James Audubon wrote, in 1813, of a flock of passenger pigeons so numerous that in its passing overhead—which took three days—“the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse.” A Cornell Lab of Ornithology history states that “in 1860, one flock estimated to be a billion birds strong was said to be 300 miles long; it took 14 hours, from sun up to sun down, for the flowing river in the sky to pass.” Ornithologist Alexander Wilson wrote of a flock’s “prodigious numbers, as almost to surpass belief; and which has no parallel among any of the other feathered tribes on earth.”

An Audubon painting of the passenger pigeon.

An Audubon painting of the passenger pigeon.

Prior to the second half of the 19th century, according to Birds of North America Online, more than 5 billion passenger pigeons were believed to be living in the wild. By 1871, however, the population had dropped to around 135 million. The last wild pigeon was shot in 1900, and Martha died in captivity 14 years later.

The pigeons’ rapid decline, writes Jennifer Price in “Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature in Modern America,” has been attributed to three main factors: hunting, for sport and meat; deforestation; and the spread of infectious diseases or parasites. Because the pigeons traveled in such numerous groups, and because they passed through any given area with irregularity—following “masts,” the large-scale and equally irregular fruiting of nut trees—a pigeon flyover became a popular shooting target and community event, with sportsmen commonly bagging dozens or hundreds of the birds apiece. The pigeons were shot out of their home skies in the Midwest and shipped east to shooting clubs, and they provided plentiful filling for hearty pigeon pies—often with their feet, cleaned, poking out of the center to help diners identify the type of meat inside. Like many other over-hunted and over-fished species, writes Price, it was likely the pigeons’ very abundance that “fueled the widely shared conviction that Americans could never deplete their resources.”

The centenary of Martha’s passing, perhaps, should inspire a re-examination of that conviction, writes John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. That same conviction, he writes, has caused the downfall in more recent times of cod and bluefin tuna fisheries—the latter fish currently clinging to just 96 percent of its unfished population. Fitzpatrick imagines Martha asking modern-day readers, “Have you learned anything from my passing?” Although scientific advances have allowed us to better understand, track, and buffer the health of bird populations—aided by legal protections such as the Endangered Species Act, which last year celebrated its 40th anniversary, and the habitat-protecting Wilderness Act, which last week celebrated its 50th—Fitzpatrick says that we should focus equally on the moral questions raised by the extinctions. No amount of legal protection or conservation science can save a species we don’t care to invest in saving, he writes. After all, he adds, “healthy bird habitat makes for healthy human habitat.” The benefits of biodiversity are shared.

A rendering of a passenger pigeon shoot from an 1875 gathering during a pigeon flyover.

A rendering of a passenger pigeon shoot from an 1875 gathering during a pigeon flyover.

Last week juxtaposed grief and victory, failures and successes on the conservation front. We mourn the forever-loss of a once staggeringly abundant bird, while celebrating the achievements of a legal act that has, to date, set aside more than 109 million acres as designated wilderness. In conservation, the answers don’t come easy, and it is important to share and build upon learned experiences—the ones we can celebrate, the ones we have to lament, and the many that fall somewhere in-between.

One group, Project Passenger Pigeon, has set out to probe, compile, and share stories about this first major, conservationist-galvanizing American extinction. Formed in 2010 by the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its affiliated Notebaert Nature Museum, the international project provides teaching resources, histories, quotations, and multimedia related to the passenger pigeon and its extinction, with hopes of sharing the story with new audiences and prompting introspection and creative thinking on the topics of biodiversity, extinctions, and sustainability.

We build our lives on story, and the passenger pigeon extinction story is one that still speaks loudly. However, it is just one of many such stories. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service currently lists 882 plants and 1,279 animals worldwide as “threatened” or “endangered.” Some 142 species are candidates for addition to that list. This August, a native Utah fish, the least chub (Iotichthys phlegethontis) was removed from the endangered species candidate list. Two decades of multi-agency rehabilitation efforts involving private landowners increased the number of chub population sites from three, all in western Utah’s Snake Valley, to 28. While conservationists have celebrated the comeback, some have also questioned the de-listing move. “Given its limited range and other ongoing threats, this unique little fish clearly still warrants endangered status,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Deseret News.

Many local and state groups in Utah continue working tirelessly to preserve fragile habitats and prevent further extinctions. The Utah Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps program, has restored thousands of acres of habitat in its 15 years of existence. Another local group, TreeUtah, has planted more than 325,000 trees in its first quarter-century with the help of more than 125,000 volunteers, according to the group’s web site.

Moments of ceremony and pause, anniversaries—both tragic and celebratory—invite assessment and contemplation. They inspire us to keep doing the work, while encouraging us to ask ourselves tough questions. How far have we come? What have we learned? Spend some time this week learning a bit more about lost species, species in peril, and plants, animals, and landscapes that move you. Let that be Martha’s legacy in your own life. Then, take a few minutes to ask yourself, what does extinction mean to you?

Hilary Smith is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center.

One response to “Goodbye, passenger pigeon; hello, wilderness

  1. Pingback: The Wilderness Act is 50 years old and getting stronger all the time! « Sylvabiota·

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