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Once There Were Billions. And Then None
September 1, 2014 5:26 AM   Subscribe

One hundred years ago today Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

There were an estimated 3-5 billion passenger pigeons in 1600. They may have made up as many as 40% of all birds in what is now the continental US. John James Audubon wrote about their numbers,
“I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; 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 wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose... Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.”
So many pigeons resulted in a food source for many people. By the mid-nineteenth century overhunting and habitat destruction were noticeably impacting the pigeon population. The Ohio State Legislature considered a bill protecting the pigeon in 1857, but it failed to pass. By 1886 Pennsylvania had passed legislation limiting hunting; Michigan did the same in 1897, eight years after the last known pigeon died in that state.

The last known wild passenger pigeon was killed in Ohio in 1900. Several pigeons remained in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. By 1909 only two were left, George and Martha. George died in 1910. After Martha's death she was frozen in a block of ice and taken to the Smithsonian where she was skinned, photographed, and studied.

In anticipation of the centennial the Cincinnati Zoo has also renovated their Passenger Pigeon Memorial (part of the aviary built in 1875). The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is running a special exhibit called Once There Were Billions: Vanished Bird of North America.
posted by lharmon (41 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by saturday_morning at 5:39 AM on September 1


The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA) has a piece called "Eclipse" that features a looping video projection that represents a flock of passenger pigeons flying overhead, gradually thinning until there are no birds left. It is stunning to watch the display go on and on for several minutes and to think that there was a time when you could experience it for real and that not a single one remains.
posted by briank at 5:56 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


I blame all those bastards who ordered squab from the old menu post yesterday.

These guys should definitely be on the 'to clone' list. Imagine how they changed the ecosystem by their numbers.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:14 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


Bye birds! Thanks for everything. Sorry about all the, er, you know.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:19 AM on September 1


I can't wait to eat Martha's clone!
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 6:37 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow

I've had days like that.
posted by item at 6:42 AM on September 1


Billions of .
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:45 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


The ads on this page when logged out are for the Cornell Ornithology Lab. "We Killed Them All." Effective.
posted by mkb at 6:47 AM on September 1


Yay, buffalo survived! Kinda.
posted by uraniumwilly at 6:51 AM on September 1


Elisabeth Kolbert wrote a short, interesting article about the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Excerpt:
By the eighteen-nineties, the only passenger pigeon sightings were of small, ragged flocks. And this is what makes the bird’s extinction difficult to entirely explain. Once the passenger pigeon was no longer abundant, it also was no longer worth hunting, or at least no more worth hunting than any other medium-sized bird. So why didn’t it persist at low densities? In his recent book “Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record,” Errol 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.”
posted by Kattullus at 6:52 AM on September 1 [10 favorites]


What made sense to me was that they were so attuned for massive flocks, likely even to trigger their mating instincts, that once the numbers dropped below a critical level an absolute crash would begin. The fact that they didn't perform courting rituals and almost never successfully bred in captivity seemed to back that up.
posted by tavella at 7:05 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


the last known passenger pigeon died
one hundred years ago today
they'd named her Martha Washington
her partner George? he first had passed away
these birds once flocked in the millions
an amazing sight, as some did say
but the last known passenger pigeon died
one hundred years ago today

"what's one less species?" some might ask
"there's still lotsa birds in the sky"
but the passenger pigeon, well, it might've held the key
might've answered the question "why?"
why did we need to destroy these creatures?
cause they flew in such brilliant formation?
were we envious or jealous
that we couldn't do the same?
therefore lower on the chain of creation?

well, no matter why, cause they're all long gone
we'll never see 'em soaring again
we'll read about 'em now, on our computer screens
and maybe think about 'em now and then
though we've all got a very tight schedule, for sure
still, some might find a chance to say
that the last known passenger pigeon died
a hundred years ago today
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:29 AM on September 1 [10 favorites]


Here's a lovely mural in downtown Cincinnati, honoring Martha and all the passenger pigeons.
posted by cooker girl at 7:38 AM on September 1 [2 favorites]


Have to say, billions of pigeons sounds more like a biblical / apacolyptic infestation than anything else.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 7:46 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


. (5 x 109)
posted by stbalbach at 7:46 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Technology played a role in this as well. Apparently instant messaging (well, that generation's version) helped do in the pigeons. When a large flock was seen, telegraph notices would alert hunters who would come from miles away.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:49 AM on September 1


In another 3 and 1/2 years I guess we will get a similar post on the Carolina Parakeet (also last seen in the Cinncinnati zoo). Humans, particularly the European population, are the worst invasive species of all.
posted by TedW at 8:00 AM on September 1


You can participate in commemorating this centennial by going to Fold The Flock and downloading their pattern and folding an origami passenger pigeon and then adding your bird to the flock.

Heck, fold a bunch of 'em. They're fun!
posted by hippybear at 8:04 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


September 1.

Dove hunting "season" opens today in California....
posted by CrowGoat at 8:16 AM on September 1


They are still out there. I find it hard to believe that billions of small birds can be hunted to extinction.
posted by Renoroc at 8:19 AM on September 1


IIRC, 1491 suggested that the vast flocks were historically an aberration, and pointed out that early explorers like DeSoto did not describe them. But that raises more questions about why they didn't survive when numbers were again reduced, or whether the author was incorrect.
posted by dilettante at 8:24 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


Here's a lovely mural in downtown Cincinnati, honoring Martha and all the passenger pigeons.

There was a PBS show last week about the Passenger Pigeon, and it had a segment about the creating of this mural.

When I was a kid back in the early 60's, it wasn't unusual to see mass movements of birds like starlings in the fall that were similar in effect to the descriptions of the passenger flocks. Though the numbers didn't approach those of the passenger flockings, the numbers were still quite large the starlings would be like a black stream moving through the sky that would go on for a few minutes.

I don't see those anymore, either.

.....

They are still out there. I find it hard to believe that billions of small birds can be hunted to extinction.

What? Are you saying passenger pigeons still exist? If that's what you're saying, that requires a bloody huge "cite".
posted by Thorzdad at 8:25 AM on September 1 [4 favorites]


When I was a kid back in the early 60's, it wasn't unusual to see mass movements of birds like starlings in the fall that were similar in effect to the descriptions of the passenger flocks.

Birds still do this. Smithsonian Magazine has an article this month that describes this, and the similar movements of schools of fish, and how it actually happens.
posted by hippybear at 8:33 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Wow, I thought the passenger pigeons were all gone much earlier than 1914 or even late 19th century, so thanks for edumacating me. In case anyone doesn't get the FPP and Smithsonian title reference, here's the Handsome Family.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:48 AM on September 1


> They are still out there. I find it hard to believe that billions of small birds can be hunted to extinction.

That's us humans, just like the stunned guy caught at the scene of his murder at minute 50 of the police crime drama. "I, I didn't mean to do it. I just got a little out of control. She ... she isn't really dead, is she? Martha? Martha, wake up! No, no, Maaarthaaaaa!"
posted by benito.strauss at 9:37 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


Another article along the same lines from NYT, on the theme that there are more species of birds heading towards extinction.
posted by sneebler at 9:53 AM on September 1


They are still out there. I find it hard to believe that billions of small birds can be hunted to extinction.

I'm not sure if you're being sarcastic or what, but you bring up an interesting phenomenon. I've observed that some religious people view human-caused environmental damage as literally impossible. The reasoning seams to go something like: God created the world and therefore creation and destruction of the world is His domain. Believing that humans have the power to affect the environment is, therefore, a symbol of lack of faith.

I've seen the damage termites can do to a building and I'm not sure I buy into that argument.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:54 AM on September 1 [5 favorites]


.

No, wait.

(・⊝・)
posted by univac at 10:22 AM on September 1


You can participate in commemorating this centennial by going to Fold The Flock and downloading their pattern and folding an origami passenger pigeon and then adding your bird to the flock

When I opened this month's Smithsonian and saw this origami pattern I was flabbergasted. Comemorate my race's genocidal tendencies? With origami? WTF?

They are still out there.

Somewhere I read that yes, the last "official" sighting was the bird the kid killed with his BB gun, but reports of passenger pigeon sightings were received for many years afterwards, up until the last decade of the 20th Century.
posted by Rash at 10:29 AM on September 1 [3 favorites]


On that same PBS show I mention upthread, there's a scene where the host visits a lab in Chicago where they keep preserved specimens of extinct species. Before the researcher shows the preserved bodies of passenger pigeons (beautiful birds, btw) he opens two other drawers of birds.

Drawer one is filled with gorgeous bodies of Carolina Parakeets (RIP 1918, also at the Cincinnati Zoo). Drawer two...Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers! The host takes pains to mention that there is still debate as to whether the Ivory is extinct (despite there being no solid, verifiable evidence otherwise).
posted by Thorzdad at 10:47 AM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Wow. I just came back from a visit to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary this morning. In one of the exhibit rooms you can see a painting of passenger pigeons by John James Audubon, and the exhibit mentioned the death of the last specimen at a zoo. I had no idea the centennial was today.

Raptor migration season at Hawk Mountain is gearing up, for all you birders out there. First "official" raptor in today's count was a merlin.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 10:58 AM on September 1


It is testimony to humankind’s great powers of destruction

Let us bear testimony to our great powers by boiling ourselves with CO2.
posted by benzenedream at 11:26 AM on September 1


Remarkable to think how such a large part of the ecosystem disappeared in such a short amount of time. I would have loved to see a massive flock of them with my own eyes.
posted by ageispolis at 1:37 PM on September 1


Remarkable to think how such a large part of the ecosystem disappeared in such a short amount of time.

The slaughter of the buffalo herds was equally remarkable and horrible. Perhaps more so, since they were slaughtered and their corpses left to rot, simply to deny the indigenous people one of their main food sources, to destabilize them and make their lands available for Manifest Destiny.
posted by hippybear at 1:46 PM on September 1 [3 favorites]


Killing off both the buffalo AND the indigenous people? Now THAT's efficiency.

The hundredth anniversary of the death of the last Passenger Pigeon is just a reminder, especially for those who consider the Urban species of pigeon "winged rats", that there is nothing Humanity can destroy that we can not replace... with something much worse. No, Climate Change will not kill us all; it'll just suck 99% of the joy out of the future...
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:34 PM on September 1


To be fair, we killed off a majority of the indigenous people simply by walking onto the shore of the continent and shaking hands with them, introducing diseases into their population that they had no antibiotic background to resist. By the time we were working consciously to reduce their numbers so we could seize their territory, only a fraction of their number from before our arrival were living.

But yeah, we were quite efficient once we decided we wanted their land.
posted by hippybear at 2:45 PM on September 1


"I refuse to believe" = the motto of everyone whose untested assumptions and unfamiliarity with Dunning Kruger make them the bane of everyone in the world trying to make decisions based on the best science and documentation has to offer.
posted by maxsparber at 4:25 PM on September 1 [3 favorites]


The Long Now Foundation is working on bringing passenger pigeons back.
posted by emypocu at 6:48 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


The hundredth anniversary of the death of the last Passenger Pigeon is just a reminder, especially for those who consider the Urban species of pigeon "winged rats", that there is nothing Humanity can destroy that we can not replace... with something much worse.

The idea that feral pigeons are somehow 'much worse' than passenger pigeons is a reminder that humanity can apparently only love nature at a distance. If passenger pigeons were still alive, no doubt people would be vigorously complaining about them like they do about every other kind of wildlife that has the temerity to thrive in the urban and suburban landscapes we have created.
posted by Pyry at 6:53 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


Have to say, billions of pigeons sounds more like a biblical / apacolyptic infestation than anything else.

Oh, you're not wrong. The arrival of a passenger pigeon flock (megaflock, perhaps?) would have serious consequences for agricultural crops, even denuding entire woods of trees, even damaging the trees by their sheer weight cracking off major limbs. It's one of the factors in why they were hunted so aggressively, even after their numbers dwindled: they were effectively a direct competitor with humans for food, shelter, and other important resources.
posted by dhartung at 10:50 PM on September 1 [1 favorite]


The Long Now Foundation is working on bringing passenger pigeons back.
This information will allow the team to replace segments of the band-tailed pigeon genome with the essential passenger pigeon sequences. The resulting passenger pigeon genome will be transferred into germ cells of band-tailed pigeons, using techniques still in development, to generate live passenger pigeons. The live birds will be bred in captivity and eventually returned to the wild. Every step of the way, the genetic variability of the passenger pigeon will be prioritized, incorporating diversity from multiple specimens spanning 250 years of ecological history across Northeastern North America, to make sure the end result is a diverse and viable population. (emphasis mine)
So all we have to do is massively reengineer the whole genome, reconstitute a few hundred eukaryotic individuals, then hope all epigenetic and parental knowledge successfully reboots itself despite us knowing the barest smattering of how to manipulate eukaryotic genomes and keep our changes stable and heritable. Despite not being able to do anything like that in humans or mice, which we have thousands of times more information about.
posted by benzenedream at 11:19 PM on September 1 [5 favorites]


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