The passenger pigeon diorama at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum contains an egg and nest found in 1895 in Minneapolis, said to be the last known nest and egg found in the wild. In less than 20 years, the last bird in captivity would be dead. (Pioneer Press: Richard Chin)
A hundred years ago, Martha died and an environmental cautionary tale was born.
On Sept. 1, 1914, Martha, a passenger pigeon, fell off her perch at the Cincinnati Zoo and dropped dead. She was 29.
She was the last known example of her species, the sole survivor of what once was the most numerous bird in North America and possibly the world.
Estimates suggest that the number of passenger pigeons in the mid-1800s was around 5 billion.
Accounts by bird-expert John Audubon and others of the staggering numbers of the bird sound nearly mythical, describing them as a sort of a cross between a natural disaster and a natural wonder.
The pigeons were known to form “superflocks,” which could be a mile wide and hundreds of miles long. These superflocks were said to eclipse the sun and took days to pass. Others said their millions of wings made a noise that sounded like a tornado as the superflock passed overhead at 60 mph. They could devastate a farm crop. Their nesting colonies could cover more than 100 square miles. And when they roosted, their multitudes caused trees to topple and poop to pile up a foot deep.
But all those birds were no match for hungry humans with modern weapons.
In the course of a few decades, habitat destruction and unregulated hunting wiped out the passenger pigeon. They are all gone now. Not one is left.
Extinct: The abrupt extinction of the passenger pigeon is considered the greatest human-caused extinction in recorded history.
“No one thought you could cause something as common as the passenger pigeon to go extinct. It was inconceivable,” said Robert Zink, a University of Minnesota professor and bird expert.
However, recent research by Zink suggests that maybe the bird’s own biology shares a bit of the blame.
The new study indicated that while passenger pigeons were booming early in the 19th century, that wasn’t always the case. Studies of passenger pigeon DNA labeled the birds an “outbreak” species, similar to plague locusts or lemmings. In other words, they underwent large swings in population size, which could have made them vulnerable to determined human depredation.
Specimens of the passenger pigeon, a species of bird which was totally eliminated from North America, are preserved in the University of Minnesota’s ornithology collection. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
Zink’s research says a natural downturn in the bird’s numbers occurred in the late 1800s. That, unfortunately, was when hunting of the birds really got going.
Zink said the acorn-gobbling bird was able to recover from population lows before. Some were caused by North American glaciers and others by bad acorn years. Still, the pigeons couldn’t overcome the clearing of forests for farming and logging and hunting on an industrial scale. Hunters were also aided by the telegraph, which allowed them to broadcast alerts of where the birds were flocking. When that news came, hunters simply hopped on railroad cars and zipped over to the latest hunting ground. It wasn’t long until the bird became a staple of the 19th century American diet.
Food for America: “The principal attraction is the birds were cheap,” said Joel Greenberg, author of the recently published book, “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.”
“They were the cheapest terrestrial protein,” he said.
They were also easy to find and kill.
Passenger pigeons weren’t particularly clever or elusive either, the experts agree. Zink said they didn’t have to be. Their huge numbers meant that natural predators couldn’t kill enough of them to make a difference in their survival as a species. That changed when humans with 19th-century technology came along.
A single shotgun blast into a dense flock could bring down a dozen birds. A kid with a pole could knock them out of a tree or even out of the sky. They also were netted, poisoned, burned out of their roosts and gassed with burning sulfur.
The birds were slaughtered in such numbers that surplus carcasses were used to feed hogs and fill potholes, according to Greenberg.
Hunting never stopped: Even as their numbers dwindled, the killing continued. Some people were in a state of denial about the disappearance of the bird, believing stories they had flown to South America and changed their appearance.
“That sounds crazy to us now, but at the time, the crazier alternative was that the passenger pigeon would go extinct,” said Elisabeth Condon, as assistant scientist with the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute.
Hunting efforts actually intensified as the flocks shrank, Condon said.
“People were really eager to shoot the last passenger pigeon,” she said.
According to Zink, it wasn’t necessary to shoot the last bird. Humans had already fragmented their habitat and their dwindling numbers made it hard for them to recover. Without large colonies and flocks, the passenger pigeon had a hard time breeding, scouting for acorns and resisting non-human predators.
The final pigeon: The last wild nest and egg of a passenger pigeon was found in Minneapolis in 1895, according to Greenberg. The last credible report of a wild bird bagged by a hunter occurred in 1902. The second-to-last bird living bird, named George, died in captivity in 1910 after failing to reproduce with Martha.
Martha, who had spent her life in captivity, endured the last four years of her life as a lonely, tragic celebrity. Greenberg said her death may be unique in bird extinctions in that we know the day when a species came to an end.
Passenger Pigeon 2.0: The story may not end if something called “The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback” turns out to be a success.
That’s the “flagship project” of an organization called Revive & Restore dedicated to “de-extinction,” or using cutting-edge DNA science to bring extinct animals back to life.
The project would use passenger pigeon DNA harvested from museum specimens and DNA of the closely related Band-tailed pigeon to create a bird that would look and behave like a passenger pigeon.
“What is created is going to be up for debate by a lot of people,” said Ben Novak, leader of the project. “It’s a lot like passenger pigeon 2.0.”
Novak said if everything goes right, the “Adam and Eve” of this species “reset” might be created in about eight years. He said by using surrogate Band-tailed pigeon parents, several hundred or even a thousand new passenger pigeons could be created in another five years for a “soft release” in an enclosed wild environment.
“I can see wanting to bring it back because it’s pretty clear we caused its demise,” Zink said of the project. “I think the motivation is apologetic. We’re sorry for the passenger pigeon, we’re sorry we did this to you.”
Reported by RICHARD CHIN of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Richard Chin can be reached at 651-228-5560. Follow him at twitter.com/RRChin .