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