What Happened to the Passenger Pigeon?

Passenger Pigeons.  Photo by Todd McGrain

Passenger Pigeons. Photo by Todd McGrain

I just picked up Joel Greenberg’s A Feathered River Across the Sky:  The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.  What a terrific read.  I had no idea how abundant this bird was – apparently, the most numerous bird species in North America (and possibly the world) in the 1800’s.  Get this:  In 1813 John Audubon saw a flock that took three days to pass overhead! Witnesses frequently described the birds in quasi-Biblical terms. In their wake, passenger pigeons often left behind ravaged fields, broken limbs (too many of them roosting on one branch), and feet-thick coatings of their droppings.  According to Lake County, Illinois records, “they flew in flocks that darkened the sun.” A single nesting ground in Wisconsin was reported to cover 850 square miles. Such abundance meant for happy hunting. You see where this is going….  By the turn of the century, the species was extinct. There was a captive pair at the Cincinnati zoo – the female of which (the last living member of the species) died in 1914. The publication of Greenberg’s book is timed with the 100 year anniversary.

Greenberg tells the story well. He puts the extinction in its cultural context and writes with great insight about the bird’s natural history (Greenberg is a naturalist and the author of the bird blog, Birdzilla).  The short answer as to why the passenger pigeon went extinct is that it tasted good and was easy to kill.  Of course, Americans got better and better at killing the birds with efficient methods and when you combined that with destruction of the bird’s natural habitat through the logging industry…

One element I loved about the story is the way that, long after the species was extinct, people kept reporting sightings of them and coming up with crazy explanations to explain their reduced numbers – they were in the southwest desert, they migrated to South America, they had all drowned in the Pacific Ocean, or they were hanging out offshore (just out of sight).  As Greenberg suggests, maybe the human role in the pigeon’s extinction was just too much to own (sound familiar?)

The actual pigeon specimen being used for its DNA. Photo by Brian Royal.

The actual pigeon specimen being used for its DNA. Photo by Brian Royal.

Today there is a plan afoot to bring back a genetic recreation of the bird:  The Great Passenger Pigeon ComebackGeorge Church (of the Human Genome Project) is working on this with Stewart Brand‘s (of the Whole Earth Catalog and The WELL fame) foundation Revive & Restore.  Love the combo.  They plan to take passenger pigeon genes from the toe pads of museum specimens ( pictured at the right) and combine them with genes from the band-tailed pigeon.

If reading the book is more than you want to take on, there is a fabulous New Yorker article by Jonathan Rosen that excerpts the story extremely well. And if you want to make the passenger pigeon a part of your travel plans in 2014, there is a memorial to the passenger pigeon at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio.

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3 Comments

Filed under Interesting Science

3 responses to “What Happened to the Passenger Pigeon?

  1. Made me think of the bison, but they made it, barely. Suppose there are ecological or food-chain ramifications with their disappearance as well?

  2. Wonderful post about the issue at hand, Robin… . I wanted to let you know about an upcoming symposium (May 17) and art exhibit (opening May 4) at Brushwoods Center at Reyerson Woods in Deerfield IL, where Joel Greenberg will be presenting, and I will be one of 16 artists exhibiting in a show called “Moving Targets”, about the extinction of the passenger pigeon. I’ll be writing a blog post about it soon. All best, Karen Rand Anderson

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