The Passenger Pigeon, A Requiem

HOLD for Seth Bornenstein story-- Scientists prepare Martha, an extinct passenger pigeon, once the most plentiful bird on the
HOLD for Seth Bornenstein story-- Scientists prepare Martha, an extinct passenger pigeon, once the most plentiful bird on the planet, who went extinct in September 1914 when Martha died in public at the Cincinnati zoo, at the Smithsonian's Natural history Museum in Washington, Monday, June 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

September 1, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of what had been the most abundant bird in the Americas, and likely the world.

By 1850, the Passenger Pigeon was still the most abundant bird in the Americas. Around that same time, a long-distance migrant bird called the Eskimo Curlew was shot by the wagonload on the Plains. The prairies and their herds of Buffalo are essentially gone, both birds are extinct, and even the very remembrance of the Eskimo Curlew is vanishing; almost no one I ask has ever heard of it. I feel a loss, but, honestly, does it matter? How many people miss Passenger Pigeons?

Into the 1800s, Passenger Pigeons ranged from Newfoundland through the whole forested East to Florida and west to the Plains, occasionally spilling to Mexico, the Pacific coast, even straying at times to Bermuda and the British Isles. The pioneering ornithologist Alexander Wilson described one Passenger Pigeon breeding colony in Kentucky around 1806 as occupying an area 40 miles long and several miles wide, with densities of over 100 nests per tree, containing many millions. In 1810, Wilson described one "almost inconceivable multitude," of pigeons that rolled overhead all during an afternoon while he was traveling, estimating the flock at 240 miles long, containing 2.2 billion birds. He estimated that flock's fuel needs at 17.5 million bushels of acorns daily. Others described flocks taking days to pass, darkening the sun "as by an eclipse," as "abundant as the fish" on the coast, and elsewhere "beyond number or imagination," "in innumerable hordes," and, often simply, "incredible." Audubon painted this description in 1827:

... [F]ew pigeons were to be seen before sunset; but a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments... Suddenly, there burst forth a general cry of 'Here they come!' The noise which they [the pigeons] made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea... as the birds arrived, and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by polemen. The current of birds, however, still kept increasing... the pigeons, coming in by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses... were formed on every tree, in all directions... Here and there the perches gave way with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout, to those persons who were nearest to me. The uproar continued... the whole night... Toward the approach of day, the noise rather subsided... the howlings of the wolves now reached our ears; and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums, and pole-cats were seen sneaking off from the spot. Whilst eagles and hawks, of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them, and enjoy their share of the spoil. It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each [hunter] had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.

As early as 1672, one New England observer wrote of vast numbers of the pigeons but noted, "of late they are much diminished, the English taking them with nets." Yet as late as 1878 one last great nesting, settled in on an area 40 miles long, 3 to 10 miles wide in Michigan, "where a tremendous slaughter took place." But the slaughter, and settlers felling the forests that fed and bred the birds, took their toll. (Yet, true to our uniquely human capacity for denial, people wondered how they "disappeared;" some writers speculated that they all drowned in the ocean or Great Lakes -- or migrated to Australia.) The last Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. She was the last of her species, but the phenomenon that her species was, had already vanished from Earth.


The conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold lamented in 1948:

Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind... 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.

We grieve for a marvel squandered.

Many regions have their stories, from the shattered turtles and extinguished monk seals of the Caribbean, to swarms of salmon that formerly streamed into the Northwest's former forests and up the once-mighty Columbia, to the vast sea-thundering herds of giant tunas I saw, to--.

But OK; let's not get over-wound. We can live well without them, so the reasonable question often arises: Does losing them "matter?"

It matters.

Don't let anyone suggest it doesn't matter because people can live without them. People can -- and most do -- live perfectly well without computers, refrigerators, the Winter Olympics, plumbing, libraries, concert halls, baseballs, museums, and ibuprofen. Whether things are worthwhile for survival, or whether they help make survival worthwhile, are two quite different things. Whether we "need" them, is an uninteresting question. We never needed to lose them. People back then were too ignorant and too reckless to keep what they had.

In the 1970s people did decide to keep what we had left. The United States congress passed the Endangered Species Act. When we decide to care, caring works.

And as I think of what we are doing to elephants, coral reefs, Bluefin tuna, the great apes and the great cats, today on this sad centennial I wonder whether humanity ever really learned the lesson of the passenger pigeon. I wonder -- with two billion more of us expected by mid-century -- whether we ever really can.

Adapted from The View From Lazy Point; A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, by Carl Safina, published by Holt.