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.
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 .Read More
Toledo’s newest exotic resident weighs 440 pounds, is old enough to be considered a living antique, and hails from a volcanic Pacific archipelago near the equator.
Emerson, a dome-shelled Galapagos tortoise estimated to be about 100 years old, arrived last month at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio from the San Diego Zoo.
“He is a spectacular animal,” said R. Andrew Odum, curator of herpetology at the zoo. “He’s a very majestic, statesman tortoise.”
Emerson emerged from his wooden transport crate with no hesitation and explored his new surroundings. Handlers rewarded him with carrot and sweet potato treats and a neck rub.
No one knows the average lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise because they live so long. Tracking the animals with known hatching dates takes several generations of humans, but experts estimate the giant reptiles may live anywhere from 150 to 200 years.
The species: Galapagos tortoises, an endangered species, are one of the foremost examples of the impact of human activity on the natural world and are a common symbol of the need for conservation. They can live for months without food or water, and their populations were decimated in the 1800s when whalers rounded them up to store aboard ships as a reliable source of fresh meat. Now, predation and habitat destruction from invasive species are the primary concern.
Emerson was born in the wild on the Galapagos Islands — a part of Ecuador 575 miles off the coast of that South American nation — before being brought to the United States, so his age and history are only a best guess.
A spokesman with the St. Louis Zoo, which originally housed Emerson, said records show the tortoise arrived there on New Year‘s Eve, 1959, but there are no records that say exactly where Emerson came from other than having been acquired through a “private source.”
Odum said that given Emerson’s age and characteristics, he could be one of 180 tortoises brought to the states from Isabela Island in 1928 by Charles H. Townsend. The New York Zoological Society naturalist and director of the New York Aquarium was one of the first to notice the plight of Galapagos tortoises after examining logbooks from whaling ships and realizing how many had been taken. He led an expedition to the archipelago in an attempt to preserve them.
Reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from TOLEDO, Ohio. The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Alexandra Mester is a reporter at The Blade: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.Read More
A Penn State student is gaining an Internet reputation as a “squirrel whisperer” for befriending, feeding and dressing up a furry little friend she has named Sneezy.
Junior Mary Krupa tells WJAC-TV (http://bit.ly/1B9IvPf ) that she’s able to dress up the squirrel in party hats, or get Sneezy to hold doll-sized props, simply by feeding the animal.
Krupa and Sneezy’s exploits are chronicled in a Facebook page titled “Sneezy the Penn State Squirrel.”
So far, the squirrel is proving quite popular. Its Facebook page has more “likes” than a page dedicated to the school’s official mascot, the Nittany Lion.
Captive-bred endangered black-footed ferrets crept out of their cages into the freedom of an open space area in the Colorado city of Fort Collins on Wednesday. The ferrets were the first set free under a new Colorado law that lets cities and counties release the animals into prairie dog colonies.
Officials hope the 15 ferrets will continue to hunt like they did while they were still in captivity. Each ferret is expected to eat at least a prairie dog a week. In the Western United States, prairie dogs are considered a pest and the black-footed ferret is one of their top predators. The ultimate goal is to restore ecological balance in areas where they are set free.
“It is the natural habitat where they started,” Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat said. “Because of the population of prairie dogs, we believe they will succeed.”
Other cities have expressed interest in re-introducing black-footed ferrets, formerly American’s most endangered mammal, as natural predators in similar open spaces. To do so, cities and counties must have at least 1,500 acres of un-fragmented land, said Pete Gober, National Black-footed Ferret Recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Ferret recovery is a pretty simple process,” Gober said. “You put ferrets with prairie dogs. You manage to keep disease off the landscape. And you deal with boundary control so that you don’t have prairie dogs wandering off and becoming a nuisance. If you’re committed to that kind of management, we will work with anyone to put ferrets out and have success.”
Recovery effort: Ferrets historically hunted on Colorado grasslands. Poisoning and hunting rendered them scarce by the 1930s and officials considered them extinct in the 1980s. A small population was found in Wyoming. Federal biologists took those last 18 animals and bred them at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center northeast of Fort Collins, where, with help from zoos, they now have 500.
USFWS regional director Noreen Walsh hailed Wednesday’s release of ferrets on Fort Collins’ Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and adjacent Meadow Springs Ranch open space as a major step toward recovering black-footed ferrets as a self-sustaining population in the wild.
Federal officials aim to introduce 3,000 across 12 states. Colorado officials said 150 will be introduced in that state.
What are they? Black-footed Ferrets typically weigh about 2 pounds, often not larger than their prey.
At night, their elongated bodies and sensitive snouts let them slink into tunnels to underground dens where prairie dogs sleep. Ferrets clamp their teeth into prairie dogs’ necks and squeeze, then devour them. One female ferret typically will guard turf of about 100 acres.
Reported by BRUCE FINLEY of the Denver Post from FORT COLLINS, Colorado. Contact Bruce Finley at 303-954-1700, email@example.com or twitter.com/finleybruceRead More
A longtime Boy Scout is combining his love of dogs with a project to become an Eagle Scout.
Grant Dudney, the 16-year-old Scout, will begin the project to improve the dog park in John Rudy County Park this weekend.
And he’s looking for a few volunteers to lend a hand.
The project entails repairing fencing around the dog park, including placing new rocks around the nearly two miles of fencing and staining fence posts with a rain repellent, Dudney said.
Dog lover: Dudney, with Troop 57 in Manchester, said he opted for the project at the dog park because he loves dogs but could never have one because his mother suffers from severe allergies when she’s around them.
So instead, Dudney stops by the dog park to check out pooches when he goes for walks at John Rudy County Park, located just off Mundis Race Road in East Manchester Township.
Dudney got his start in Scouting in 2007 when he joined as a Cub Scout while in third grade.
Now seven years on, he’s striving to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank a boy can obtain in the Boy Scouts of America program.
Work at the park starts Friday, and work days will be held through September.
Help wanted: The Eagle Scout project to improve the dog park in John Rudy County Park along Mundis Race Road in East Manchester Township starts Friday.
Work will be done Fridays from 4 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. through September.
To sign up to help out, go to eaglescoutcaninepark.weebly.com.
Donations can be mailed to Troop 57 BSA/Grant Dudney, C/O Christ Lutheran Church, 66 S. Main St., Manchester, PA 17345. Checks should be made out to Troop 57 with Eagle Scout/Dudney on the memo line.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reported by GREG GROSS of The York Dispatch in YORK, Pennsylvania. Reach Greg Gross at email@example.com.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — For years scientists have wondered how large rocks — some weighing hundreds of pounds — zigzag across a flat portion of desert in Death Valley National Park. As they moved on their own when no one watched them, the rocks would leave long trails etched in the earth.
Now two researchers have photographed these “sailing rocks.” How are they moving? It turns out they are being blown by light winds across the former lake bed known as the Racetrack Playa.
Cousins Richard Norris and James Norris said the movement is made possible when ice sheets that form after rare overnight rains melt in the rising sun, making the hard ground muddy and slick.
Last year, the cousins catalogued 60 rocks moving across the playa’s pancake-flat surface.
“Observed rock movement occurred on sunny, clear days, following nights of sub-freezing temperatures,” they wrote in their report.
The conclusion proves theories that have been floated since geologists began studying the moving rocks in the 1940s.
The phenomenon doesn’t happen often because it rarely rains in the notoriously hot and dry desert valley. Even more impressively, the rocks move about 15 feet per minute, the report says.
The Norrises launched their “Slithering Stones Research Initiative” in 2011. After getting permits from the National Park Service, they installed a weather station in the area and placed 15 stones equipped with global positioning devices on the desert surface.
The “GPS stones,” which were engineered to record movement and velocity, were stationed at the southern end of the playa. They were placed near where non-GPS-infused rocks begin their strange journeys after tumbling down a cliff.Read More
Sue Sausser said she awakened Sunday to find bird droppings and feathers all over her apartment, the Coeur d’Alene Press reported.
Sausser found the brownish, yellow-eyed owl between the wall and the chest of drawers on which the bird cage sits. It flew out the door and perched on their balcony railing long enough for them to take a few pictures. Don Sausser estimated the owl was 6 to 8 inches tall.
Sue and Don Sausser found one of their canaries dead in the cage. The other seemed jumpy and anxious, they said.
Beth Paragamian, wildlife education specialist with for Idaho Fish and Game and the Bureau of Land Management, said it’s strange that an owl would be flying so high in an area without many tall trees and surprising that it would enter a residence, much less open a bird cage.
“That is very unusual,” she said.
Don Sausser said they’ll likely still leave their sliding glass door open on warm summer evenings, but plan to use twist ties to secure the door on the bird cage.
See pictures of the owl here: http://www.cdapress.com/news/local_news/article_f57beda1-8a5c-5171-8f13-85c4b0ac997b.html
Reported by the Associated Press from COEUR D’ALENE, IdahoRead More
Spacewalking astronauts launched a tiny Peruvian research satellite Monday, setting it loose on a mission to observe Earth.
Russian Oleg Artemiev tossed the 4-inch box from his gloved right hand as the International Space Station sailed 260 miles above the lanet. The nanosatellite gently tumbled away, precisely as planned.
“One, two, three,” someone called out in Russian as Artemiev let go of the satellite.
Cameras watched as the nanosatellite — named Chasqui after the Inca messengers who were fleet of foot — increased its distance and grew smaller. Artemiev’s Russian spacewalking partner, Alexander Skvortsov, tried to keep his helmet camera aimed at the satellite as it floated away.
The satellite — barely 2 pounds — holds instruments to measure temperature and pressure, and cameras that will photograph Earth. It’s a technological learning experience for the National University of Engineering in Lima. A Russian cargo ship delivered the device earlier this year.
With that completed, Artemiev and Skvortsov set about installing fresh science experiments outside the Russian portion of the space station and retrieving old ones. “Be careful,” Russian Mission Control outside Moscow warned as the astronauts made their way to their next work site. They also collected samples from a window of the main Russian living compartment; engineers want to check for any engine residue from visiting spacecraft.
Reported by MARCIA DUNN of The Associated Press from CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.Read More
Making National Night Out bigger is York Area Regional Police’s goal. The annual night of community outreach is set for Tuesday.
Held at the Dallastown Community Park, just off South School Place, the event runs from 5 to 8:30 p.m., said Sgt. Pete Montgomery.
Highlights include a police motorcycle demonstration at 6 p.m., bounce houses, an inflatable obstacle course and a gaming truck, where younger attendees can play video games.
“For three and a half hours, there’s always something going on,” he said. “It’s always a fun time.”
Night out: National Night Out, held across much of the country, allows police officers to meet with residents, Northern York County Regional Police said in a news release.
The department will host its own event, open to residents who live in its jurisdiction, at the Union Fire and Hose Co., 30 E. Canal St. in Dover from 6 to 9 p.m.
During the event, officers will prepare and serve hamburgers and hot dogs and there will be carnival-style games, a bounce house, a dunk tank that will feature state Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township and officers on the hot seat and more.
Here’s a look at all the National Night Out events around York County.
- Calvary United Methodist Church: 11 N. Richland Ave. in York City, 6 to 7:30 p.m.
- Carroll Township Police: Logan Park, along Logan Road, from 5 to 9 p.m. Event includes a cookout and police and fire equipment exhibits.
- Fairview Township Police: Roof Park, 599 Lewisberry Road, from 5 to 9 p.m. Free food, music, raffle drawings and activities, such as bounce houses and games, for children.
- Northeastern Regional Police: Eagle Fire Co., 54 Center St., Mount Wolf, from 6 to 8 p.m. in conjunction with Eagle Fire Co. and Northeastern Area EMS.
- Southern Regional Police: New Freedom Park, along North Main Street, from 6 to 10 p.m. Event features emergency equipment displays, food and fun for children.
- Southwestern Regional Police: Spring Grove Area C & MA Church, 213 N. Main St., from 6 to 9 p.m. Free hot dogs, chips and drinks. Displays include police and fire equipment and there will be music and children’s games.
- Springettsbury Township Police: St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 2935 Kingston Road from 5 to 8 p.m.
- Spring Garden Township Police: Penn State York, 1031 Edgecomb Avenue, from 6 to 8 p.m. Event includes food, music, face painting, bounce houses and other activities for children. Police, fire and public works vehicles will also be on display.
- West York Block Watch: Shelly Park, at North Highland Avenue and Filbert Street, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Featuring music, food and fun.
- Wrightsville Borough: Riverfront Park, along South Front Street, from 6 to 8 p.m. Event includes food, games, fellowship and a chance to meet first responders.
- York City: York City Police and community organizations will hold events at about 30 locations in the city from 5 to 9 p.m. Many will be give away food and McGruff the Crime Dog and police officers will visit as many locations as possible.
Reported by GREG GROSS of The York Dispatch.Read More