Project Passenger Pigeon
On the 100th anniversary of one of history’s most numerous birds becoming extinct, conservationists hope to help prevent other common species at risk from following the same path.
by Barry Yeoman
In 1834 a geologist named George William Featherstonbaugh was traveling through the American South when he came across a migration of passenger pigeons, at the time the most plentiful bird on the continent. “Flocks of them many miles long came across the country, one flight succeeding to another, obscuring the daylight,” he wrote. “When such myriads of timid birds as the wild pigeon are on the wing, often wheeling and performing evolutions almost as complicated as pyrotechnic movements, and creating whirlwinds as they move, they present an image of the most fearful power. Our horse, Missouri, at such times, has been so cowed by them, that he would stand still and tremble in his harness.”
Seventy years later the passenger pigeon was extinct, the victim of such savage hunting of adults and squabs alike that the birds could no longer reproduce enough to keep up. The development of the telegraph and railroad helped create an industry of itinerant pigeon hunters who followed the flocks and killed and shipped the birds by the millions for sale as food in urban markets. The pigeons also suffered from the human belief that our own activity couldn’t possibly wipe out such an abundant species.
The last passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died around September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo, where she had lived her entire 29 or so years. Now, during the centennial of Martha’s death, a group of enthusiasts is planning a year of commemorations. They hope to educate the public not just about the pigeon but also about the value of wildlife conservation and our role in preventing natural disasters, including extinctions…
(read more: Audubon Magazine)
photo: Amy Evanstad/Flickr