The Passing Of A Pigeon

by Dish Staff

The last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago yesterday. Elizabeth Kolbert mulls over the mystery of the bird’s extinction:

In his recent book “Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record,”MarthaErrol Fuller, a British author, argues that an “additional factor” must have been at work in the species’ extinction, because “in a land as vast as the United States there can be no mopping-up hunting for a species as small as a pigeon.” (Fuller’s book contains a grainy and not particularly flattering photo of Martha standing in her cage in Cincinnati.)

Some have argued that the “additional factor” was deforestation; by this account, it’s no coincidence that the passenger pigeon went extinct right about the same time that land clearing in the eastern U.S. reached its maximum extent. Others speculate that the passenger pigeon was one of those animals that require great densities to survive.

She adds that, whatever the answer, “the mystery should give us pause” because “species that seem today to be doing fine may be sensitive to change in ways that are difficult to foresee.” Carl Zimmer is on the same page:

[David Blockstein, a senior scientist at the National Council for Science,] sees many lessons in its disappearance that apply to protecting threatened species today.

It’s a mistake to assume that a species with a big population is immune to extinction, for example. “The endangered species category is really all based on numbers, rather than biology,” he explains. Even a species with billions of members may have a biological Achilles’ heel that makes it vulnerable to human pressure.

To appreciate a species’ true risk, we have to understand not just its biology, but also our own technological advances. In the 1800s, the new technology included the telegraph and trains. Now it includes global positioning systems, cell phones, and huge fishing vessels. “We have factory ships that can vacuum up the ocean,” says Blockstein.

Mark Fischetti highlights efforts to resurrect the species:

The hundredth anniversary of Martha’s death is a sad occasion but it is also marked by an intriguing possibility. Ben Novak, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is trying to use genetics to bring them back from the dead. As a recent article by my colleague David Biello explains, Novak has sequenced the genomes of 32 birds that are preserved at various museums and labs and is inserting edited version of those genomes into living band-tailed pigeons, a close relative.

If he succeeds—and that’s a big if—Martha’s newly created kin could one day darken the skies again.

Update from a reader:

Just last week I heard Joel Greenberg, author of A Feathered River Across the Sky, speak about extinction at the Field Museum in Chicago.  I have no idea why anyone would be confused about the factors that combined to lead to the extinction of what was once the most numerous vertebrate on the planet.  Its forests were indeed diminished, but human predation did the species in (as we probably did in prehistoric megafauna across the Americas and Eurasia).  And to relate it to our contemporary world:

The passenger pigeon went extinct in part due to … lack of government regulations for hunting.  They were hunted relentlessly (and hunters used technology like telegraphs to locate the flocks), because they were so numerous.  They laid one egg a year per nesting pair, but were not allowed time off from hunting to breed, and so billions became zero.  Their extinction, along with the near-extinction of the American bison (aka buffalo) was one of the leading causes of laws regulating hunting and habitat in the US.

The Guardian review of Greenberg’s excellent book is here.

(Photo: The last passenger pigeon, Martha, named after George Washington’s wife, died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. From Wikimedia Commons)