YOUR COLUMN HERE — Today, September 1, 2014, marks a century to the day that a legendary species of bird perished from the face of the earth. Martha, the very last surviving passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. With her death, the passenger pigeon officially went extinct.
Martha was estimated to be 29 years old on the day when she was found lifeless on the floor of her cage. No passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild for years beforehand, and none was ever seen afterward. That is why she is believed to have been the very last one.
By November 1907, Martha and two male companions were the only known surviving passenger pigeons left in the entire world. One of her companions died in April 1909 and the other in July 1910, leaving her all alone.
Martha thus spent the last four years of her life as an “endling,” an individual that is the last living specimen of a subspecies or entire species. When an endling dies, a unique genome that has survived and evolved across hundreds of thousands or millions of generations dies out with it. A branch of life, one that extended unbroken across hundreds of millions of years, all the way back to microscopic, unicellular organisms, is clipped off permanently.
Once it became known that Martha was the very last of her kind, she achieved a certain morbid celebrity status. Visitors flocked to see her, and there were even offers of a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find her a mate. Alas, too little, too late.
Zoologists estimate that about 320 species or subspecies of land vertebrates have been driven extinct since 1500, virtually all of them as a result of human actions related to overpopulation: habitat destruction and fragmentation (mostly to make way for agriculture, but also because of dams, cities, roads and logging), indiscriminate hunting, and to a smaller extent, invasive species (including introduced diseases), pollution and pesticides.
Each one of these extinguished creatures was distinctive or special, but the passenger pigeon was especially special, making its passing all the more poignant and symbolic. That’s because half a century before they all vanished, passenger pigeons were by far the single most abundant bird species in America, if not the entire world. There were an estimated 3-5 billion of them: one out of every four birds north of Mexico.
Audubon magazine shared the story of a Potawatomi Indian, Simon Pokagon, who in May 1850 was camped near Michigan’s Manistee River when he heard an approaching sound, as if “an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me.”
Decades later, Pokagon wrote, “While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.”
It could take hours for a single gargantuan flock, darkening the sky and numbering in the hundreds of millions, to pass a single spot; it was impossible to hold a conversation beneath them. One flock took several hours to pass over Columbus, Ohio, in 1855, blotting the sun from the sky, causing horses to bolt, children to scream, and adults to drop to their knees and pray. In 1813, naturalist and painter John James Audubon recorded another flock that took three days to cross over the Ohio River.
But Euro-American settlers came, first by the thousands and then the millions, armed with guns, saws, axes and plows. Passenger pigeons plummeted from the sky. Pigeon meat was tasty, and at first the flocks were so dense that just waving a pole in the air could kill some.
After the Civil War, the advent and expansion of the telegraph and railroad facilitated the growth of a commercial pigeon industry that butchered the birds by the billions. And forests were cleared to make way for farms.
By the 1880s the passenger pigeon was in serious trouble. And even as their numbers plunged, “there was virtually no effort to save them,” naturalist Joel Greenberg told Audubon. “People just slaughtered them more intensely. They killed them until the very end.”
Yet misgivings and second thoughts over the passenger pigeon’s dramatic demise helped spur the nascent wildlife conservation movement at the start of the 20th century. Throughout the century just passed, the pigeon’s fate has served as a cautionary tale for biologists and policymakers alike, as they ponder the implications of mindless human folly for all of nature.
Today, Project Passenger Pigeon is using the centenary to commemorate the bird and the significance of its story. Revise & Restore, headed up by the Long Now Foundation’s Stewart Brand, is underwriting a controversial project to attempt resurrection of the passenger pigeon, or at least as close a doppelganger as modern genetic engineering techniques will allow, using DNA extracted from museum specimens.
The abundance of the passenger pigeon and its man-driven demise is a story that should be taught. The lessons to take away are that we can make a difference through conservation, and we can learn from our mistakes, even staggeringly monumental ones.
Leon Kolankiewicz is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization, a wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner.