Once there were billions

September 1, 2014 • 6:10 am

JAC: Yesterday I mentioned that today is an anniversary of note. I forgot that it was the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Poland by the Germans, and thus the beginning of World War II. But it’s also a biological anniversary, and Greg has volunteered to tell us about that one:

by Greg Mayer

Exactly 100 years ago today, on September 1, 1914, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) became extinct. We rarely know when a species becomes extinct with such precision, even in those cases, like the passenger pigeon, when the species succumbed at the hands of man. We know for the passenger pigeon, though, for by this date 100 years ago it had been many years since a passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild, and the only remaining birds were in captivity. And on this date, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo at the age of 29.

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, by Carl Hurlbert, USNM.
Martha, the last passenger pigeon, photo by Donald Hurlbert, USNM.

Her demise marked the end of a sad chapter in the history of human exploitation of nature. In the first half of the 19th century, flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the skies of eastern North America, and could take days to pass by. Their numbers were estimated to be in the billions. A few decades of remorseless market hunting more than decimated them, and, once below a certain number, the intensely social species seemed unable to successfully reproduce. The last few pigeons in captivity stemmed mostly from the efforts of Charles O. Whitman, one of Jerry’s predecessors in biology at the University of Chicago, and an expert on pigeons. Whitman’s attempts at breeding, including sending Martha to the Cincinnati Zoo, did not succeed. Martha outlived Whitman, who died in 1910, so he did not live to see the ultimate passing of the pigeons.

The National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian has a temporary exhibit commemorating this sad milestone, “Once There Were Billions“, which opened in June and will be up till October of next year. I got a chance to see it just a few days after it opened. It’s a small exhibit—just two cases—but dense with specimens, objects, and information, a fine example of the style of museum exhibition that I call the “cabinet” style, which we’ve praised before here at WEIT.

Once There Were Billions, first case, at the USNM, 26 June 2014.
“Once There Were Billions”, first case, at the USNM, 26 June 2014.

After Martha’s death she was sent to the Smithsonian, where she still resides, and she is a highlight of the exhibition.

Three specimens, including Martha herself (11). Martha and number 10 are mounted for exhibition, while 12 is prepared as a standard”study skin”. (Almost all bird specimens in a research collection are prepared in this fashion.)
Martha signage from “Once There Were Billions”.

A number of classic illustrations are included from the Smithsonian Library, including from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina from the 1700s.

A passenger pigeon from Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina.

The exhibit also features 3 other once abundant species which were driven extinct largely by hunting: the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, and the heath hen.

The second case in the exhibition at the USNM.

The great auk is shown in an illustration from Walter Rothschild’s Extinct Birds (which also has a passage on passenger pigeons on pp. 167-170),

Great auk from Rothschild’s Extinct Birds.

as well as by a preserved specimen.

Great auk at the USNM.

And the Carolina parakeet is represented by two specimens; note the passenger pigeon illustration from Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology to the left of the parakeets.

Carolina parakeets. Note Wilson’s passenger pigeon illustration to the lower left.

On the exhibit web page, there are links to a fine collection of illustrations and books about all four species from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Signage for “Once There Were Billions”.

The Smithsonian is also showing a set of sculptures by by Todd McGrain from the Lost Bird Project; his passenger-pigeon sculpture is displayed on the USNM’s ‘front lawn’.

Passenger pigeon sculpture at USNM.

The Lost Bird Project sign at USNM.
The Lost Bird Project sign at USNM.

For further reading on passenger pigeons, I recommend A.W. Schorger’s The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1955). Two new books have been published this year, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury USA, New York) by the noted Chicago naturalist Joel Greenberg, and Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and its Relevance Today (Bloomsbury Natural History, London), but I have not read them.

h/t  Mark Joseph

47 thoughts on “Once there were billions

      1. I haven’t searched for confirmation, but the recent news of poachers’ poisoning of vultures in Africa made me wonder if they’re using the drug that nearly wiped them out in India.

      1. It is the ones at the bottom end that worry me most – the ‘unseen’ creatures and plants that make up the bulk of extinctions.

    1. So depressing. A line from the article I mention in #4 below: “And then the Passenger Pigeon was gone, in a geological instant. Its destruction is a strong contender for our deadliest ecological sin.”

      Though I read about the Carolina Parakeet, and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, and the other standard emblems of our own species’ greed and idiocy when I was young, it was always the Passenger Pigeon that stuck in my mind, and turned me into a such a committed conservationist that not even 25 years as a fundamentalist could eradicate it.

      I need to work up an essay on why religious people, especially christians, are not *really* creationists, despite their declarations for public consumption. The proof of the pudding is that they do not care about preserving the 30 million or so species that their god supposedly created, and that they are willing, and even eager to kill them off for the most trivial economic reasons, or even just because “wow, I got this cool new gun and I want to go shoot something”. The reason why they prattle on so about creationism would then devolve upon their desire to hang on to cultural power, along with some even less-savory reasons (“I ain’t kin to no (dark-skinned) monkeys”). Perhaps some day I’ll find the time.

    1. The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon (representing other ecological catastrophes) and the start of WWII (representing war).

      Not trying to sound callous, but I have to wonder which, in the long run, will prove the more significant?

      1. but I have to wonder which, in the long run, will prove the more significant?

        World War II gave us nuclear weapons. The signs of those (even their manufacture and testing, let alone their widespread use) will persist long after the bones of the passenger pigeon crumble into phosphate-rich patches in a metamorphic rock.

        1. No argument there. However, what I was thinking, and not expressing any too clearly, was the question, “How will the human race do itself in? By war? Or by ecocide?”

          My money, for what it’s worth, is on the latter. (I don’t think there is any question that we will either do ourselves in, or be done in, in the reasonably near future)

          Applications of the thought process as a resolution of the Fermi paradox is left as an exercise for the reader.

          1. Jerks that humans can collectively be, I say we go out doing both. Ecosystem issues cause wars as people try to get resources, wars get bigger as foreign interests in resources grow & then because we just can’t stop ourselves, things escalate & it’s goon night Irene.

  1. I had learned that an important factor in their vulnerability was that they were communal nesters, packing their nests together in trees.

  2. I remember reading once, I do not remember where, that the billions of passenger pigeons that once darkened the skies were themselves a reflection of human activities. The idea was that before European contact their population levels were substantial but not sky-blackening and that their numbers rose so high as a result of collapse (by disease) of the Native American populations and the subsequent regrowth of forests in the Eastern US.

    I don’t know if this is true, but it is an intriguing idea. (Maybe it was in Charles C. Mann’s book titled 1491?)

    1. The relationship between humans and three species of Columbiformes–the Passenger Pigeon, the Rock Pigeon, and the Dodo–is developed in an article titled A Tale of Three Superdoves in the Spring 2014 issue of Living Bird magazine published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Very interesting.

      If you support the Lab, you get the quarterly magazine for free. I think it’s quite a worthwhile organization.

    2. I was going to mention this myself. And yes, 1491 is where I encountered it.

      The idea is basically that flocks of birds so numerous they darken the skies, take days to pass, and topple trees just by perching in them, cannot reflect an ecosystem in healthy equilibrium. The same goes for herds of bison that stretch from horizon to horizon (as indeed they once did).

      Such cases must have been transient anomalies, and would not have been sustainable even without hunting by European settlers.

      This does not of course absolve us of guilt for their extinction. But the flocks of billions were themselves very likely a pathological condition that we indirectly created, not a pristine state of nature that we thoughtlessly destroyed.

      1. Yes, that perspective on the passenger pigeon is from Mann’s “1491”.If I remember correctly he also argues that the “vast unbroken stands of American woodland” were also a secondary feature that arose only after Native American populations were decimated by European diseases and their landscape management regime broke down. In pre-Columbian times the woodlands were kept open by burning and clearance of land for agriculture.

        “1491” is a fascinating, eye-opening book. It does a good job of dispelling a lot of the “Noble Savage” myths about Native Americans being proto-hippies living in perfect harmony with nature and never numbering more than a few million in the entire continent.

  3. I doubt if we could have coexisted with the Passenger Pigeon even if they didn’t taste good: it was reported that when a huge flock moved into an area, the stench and noise were unbelievable and it was said that one could hear the sound of tree branches breaking under their weight all day and night long, not to mention the damage a giant flock could do to crops- they would have been killed as pests, in any case! It certainly would be nice, though to be able to still see the beautiful Carolina Parakeets in the wild; it’s a wonder that the Snowy Egret didn’t follow the same route, what with the market demand for their plumage for ladies’ hats; their survival was apparently due to the inaccessibility of nesting grounds deep in the swamps of the South.

    The days of the elephants and rhinos are numbered: the remote, hostile areas of Africa where breeding populations survived are now visited by poachers with helicopters and tranquilizer darts, feeding the appetites of the newly-rich in Asia who either want something simply because it’s rare, or think that powdered horn will make them perform better in bed. They are viewed as “quick cash” by warlords anxious to enrich themselves and buy weapons and I’ve heard it estimated that at least a dozen elephants a day are being slaughtered, their bodies left to rot.

    People: I’m torn between wanting to help them, and wanting to set out trays of poisoned “bait” for them!

    1. The days of the wild elephants and rhinos are numbered:

      Fixed that for you. It’s fairly implausible that the captive (including game park) populations of these will be extinguished, unless we kill ourselves off first. Even with a comprehensive collapse of human civilisation, the populations in India and Indochina which are used as working animals are likely to be retained as they’re useful animals. When you can’t get parts for your all-terrain truck, then dragging load by elephant remains an option.
      And most of the present populations in Africa are not in particularly remote areas. The conflict between elephants and farmers is a continuing problem (along with poaching).

      the newly-rich in Asia who either want something simply because it’s rare,

      It’s fashion. So, if you know someone of Chinese (Vietnamese, Malay …) descent and discover they have ivory, then report them to the police, express disgust and horror and generally do what you can to destroy the social cachet that they get from owning such objects. Though, TBH, it’s probably not the people from those societies who live in contact with Western society who’re likely to be the problem. It’s the people “back home”. Destroying the buying base is what is needed, and that means shaming and embarrassing people is needed. In the animal rights movement, the occasional bucket of blood thrown over a fur-clad bimbo in a bar was one of the most effective tools at destroying the fur industry. Though the bloody (sic) stuff is coming back now. Where’s my bucket?

      or think that powdered horn will make them perform better in bed

      Now, there’s an opportunity for Hollywood. Bollywood? No, that’s India. What’s the nick name for the Chinese film industry? Them people, anyway.

  4. I hope some day we’re able to use the specimens to obtain the genomes of some of the above species (and especially including the Ivory-bill). Are parts of the skeletons used in preparing stuffed specimens, or do they substitute wires and the like?

    1. Storrs Olson once characterized the way a standard bird study skin is made is that you take the bird, skin it, then throw away the bird! (More modern techniques of preparation often include saving the skeleton and soft tissues [in alcohol or frozen].) Older specimens (like of these extinct species) have usually been preserved in a variety of conditions, but almost always in one or another specimen you can recover DNA (dried foot pads are a favorite place to try), so significant genetic sampling (if not whole genomes) should be possible to obtain. In fact, I’d be surprised if some sampling has not been done already.


        1. Here’s a paper that recently reported gene sequences for the Carolina parakeet: Kirchman, J.J., E.E. Schirtzinger, and T.F. Wright. 2012. Phylogenetic relationships of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) inferred from DNA sequence Data. Auk 129:197-204. pdf


          1. Phylogenetic relationships of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) inferred from DNA sequence Data. Auk 129:

            That is a startlingly apt journal to publish such work in. I bet, I just bet, that it is not accidental.
            A round of libations on the answer!

            1. Many ornithological journals are named for a bird. The premier British journal is The Ibis, American is The Auk, Australian is Emu. Another major American journal is The Condor, and many local ornithological society’s journals also have bird names; Wisconsin’s is The Passenger Pigeon!


        2. And here’s the passenger pigeon: Hung, CM, RC Lin, JH Chu, CJ Yao, and SH Li. 2013. The de novo assembly of mitochondrial genomes of the extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) with next generation sequencing. Plosone 8(2): e56301. pdf


  5. The following is from “Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America” by Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History. After condemning the slaughter of the Carolina Paroquet by farmers, market hunters and sportsmen, Chapman wrote, “So far as I know the Carolina Paroquet was last taken near Taylor Creek, northeast of Lake Okeechobee, where, in April, 1904 I saw thirteen and shot four.”
    Chapman was unaware of the bizarre nature of that statement.

    1. Back in the 1980s, nanotechnology guru Eric Drexler made a suggestion for anyone doing field work in tropical rain forests. His idea was that in addition to your primary scientific mission (whatever that might be), you should take a few moments to shake some trees, shovel up some leaf litter, dump it in a cooler with some dry ice, and stick it in a freezer when you get back to civilization.

      The idea is that by doing this you’re virtually guaranteed to capture some species that will be extinct in a few decades. Even if you never get around to cataloguing or classifying what you shoveled up, you will have preserved their DNA for future generations of scientists to study and possibly de-extinct them, and that’s got to be worth something.

      I don’t know if this idea ever caught on, but it seemed like a no-brained to me at the time.

      1. Samples without metadata are almost as little use as metadata without samples.
        I’m just doing transmittals for nearly a tonne of samples at work. The job isn’t over until the paperwork is done.
        BTW, in many countries you’ll be committing a criminal offence by taking (sorry, “considering taking”) such samples out of the country without the appropriate permissions and paperwork. They call it things like “biopiracy“.
        What may happen at the airport depends on many things. I learned my lesson trying to take rock samples out of an African country (simple ignorance of the laws ; not an error I will repeat ; also, not an admissible defence) : 3 hours in a locked room with the 3 to 6 armed customs officers, being screamed at in Swahili. I almost missed my flight. One of the less joyful experiences of my life. The next time we did the paperwork (1 hour), had the inspection (4 hours, mostly waiting around in the Mining Ministry), paid the taxes (a hundred dollars or so, I never did know the exchange rate) and took the samples through without problems.
        What your local customs would make of the undocumented samples is another question. I’d expect the rubber glove, for starters.

        1. Samples without metadata are almost as little use as metadata without samples.

          Sure. At minimum you’d want to label each bin with the time and place it was collected.

          But I recall some objections at the time along the lines of “just shoveling stuff into bins and freezing it isn’t science.” Seems to me that misses Drexler’s point, which is to spend some trivial amount of effort to save some DNA that otherwise will most likely be lost. If there’s a downside to that, I’m not seeing it.

          Granted, given customs hassles of the sort you describe, the effort involved may turn out to be far from trivial. But in cases where the effort really is trivial, what have you got to lose?

  6. I saw an exhibit of extinct animals at the Australian Museum in Sydney. It was so sad and it had this movie of the Tasmanian Tiger playing. Such a loss and we are doing a good job of rubbing out the tigers we do still have!

  7. I read “A Feathered River Across The Sky.” As someone that knows very little about birds, I thought it was great…and really depressing. Especially the ways people killed them and how much waste was generated (so many were killed, they just rotted in large piles)…it was actually difficult for me to read those parts and I fell asleep furious or sad most nights (I read before I sleep). It’s hard to imagine what it would actually have been like, but the book did a good job of painting pictures in my mind. I do not remember reading anything in that book about the numbers increasing due to declining Native American populations, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t mentioned – I’m sure there are lots of things I don’t remember. I believe the book is supposed to become a documentary sometime in the next few years and I’d be interested in watching it. Another good/depressing book that came out recently is called “Lost Animals”…it’s about extinct animals and the photographic record.

  8. I recommend two books by Alan W. Eckert:

    I read them in middle school – they’re oldies but goodies.

    1. Not at all sure how effective this may be.

      Considering that they were (apparently) highly social animals … one wonders how much of the non-genetic information that the pigeons would have got from the flock one would retrieve.
      The same question applies, very firmly, to proposals to foster a Mammoth clone in an elephant. How are you going to bring it up?

  9. I have always been repulsed by people who hunt for pleasure. People who kill for fun are sick in the head. And, yes, they do it for fun. The money they save on meat pales in comparison to the money and time they spend hunting. When I hear about a hunting accident, I feel no sympathy.

  10. I still remember the bit in one of the episodes of _The Bloodhound Gang_ (show-within-a-show on _3-2-1 Contact) which revolved around the passenger pigeon. “Gone but not forgotten. 1914.” or something like that, which was a clue in one of the mysteries.

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