A new film by Project passenger pigeon marks the 100th anniversary of the birds’ extinction. Once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering up to 5 billion birds. John James Audobon wrote of flocks so big that they filled the sky, blotting out the sun, taking 3 days to pass overhead. They nested in huge groups, making it easy for hunters to catch thousands at a time. Large areas of forest were cut for farming and the birds’ habitats were splintered, or removed altogether. Forced to abandon their usual foraging grounds and turn to farmers’ fields, the birds were then targeted by farmers trying to protect their crops. Decades later, the last one, Martha, died in Cincinatti zoo on 01/09/1914. Whilst it was a long time ago, a long way away, and is a tale all too familiar, it is an important story that deserves telling:
It was (and is) a wake-up call.
In 1857 a bill put forward to protect the passenger pigeon was rejected “[it] needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.” Back then, as now, people just didn’t think it would happen.
It shows the importance of biology.
The feral pigeons found in our cities can lay up to 12 eggs per year. But the passenger pigeon produced only one. With millions of birds being killed year after year, they couldn’t reproduce fast enough.
It shows the importance of ecology.
Some solitary species like the Kakapo and California Condor have pulled back from extinction with a few individuals. However, social birds can show the Allee effect: All adults are important to the survival of the group, even those that don’t breed. Populations needs to be of a certain size to be successful. Any smaller and they won’t survive. Hunting and deforestation broke wild pigeon populations into smaller and smaller pieces, and captive flocks were too small to breed.
It led to the first Wildlife protection law in the US
Introduced to the senate by John F Lacey
“the wild pigeon, formerly in flocks of millions, has entirely disappeared from the face of the earth…We have given an awful exhibition of slaughter and destruction, which may serve as a warning to all mankind. Let us now give an example of wise conservation of what remains of the gifts of nature.”
Congressman Lacey’s words are still true today, and there is still so much to be done.
Top Image: By Enno Meyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons