Jaz Brisack: June 2010 Archives

Passenger Pigeons: A Plight Permitted

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The passenger pigeon was the most common bird in North America. Mile-long flocks numbered into the billions, making farmers view the birds as pests. Explorers were amazed by the multitudes, writing that the flocks took hours to pass overhead and that they were countless. No one expected them to go extinct.

RM lcust3.jpgNo one expected the Rocky Mountain locust, another pest, to go extinct, either. While the passenger pigeons were the second-most common animal in the whole world, these arthropods were the most common. In 1875, a swarm was spotted estimated to be 198,000 square miles -- larger than the entire state of California! That alone would have contained 12 and a half trillion insects, and weighed more than 27 tons!

Yet, less than thirty years after this sighting, the species was extinct. How? These locusts swarmed about for periods, then returned to sandy riverbeds, their natural breeding grounds. When they were in the riverbeds, burrowing under to lay their eggs, they were endangered by farmers plowing the ground above them to plant crops. Records state that farmers brought up thousands of egg cases while tilling their fields. Their egg cases discovered and their breeding grounds destroyed, these insects eventually went extinct. The last locust in the wild was found in Canada in 1902. North America is the only settled continent without a major species of locust.

Like the locusts, the passenger pigeons also vanished. In 1914, the last passenger pigeon, Martha (named after Martha Washington), died, and, unlike the ivory billed woodpecker, which is critically endangered today when it had been believed extinct for years, no other passenger pigeon has ever been found.

There are many causes for this entirely preventable extinction. For sport, hunters went out and slaughtered thousands of them. Shockingly, people killed passenger pigeons in many cruel ways. Some hunters caught a bird, sewed its eyes shut using a needle and thread, and tied it to a stool. As the bird attempted to land, it would flutter its wings, thus attracting the attention of other birds flying overhead. When the flocks landed near the blind bird, the other birds were trapped in nets and the hunters would crush them. Secondly, trees where pigeons made their nests were set on fire, and the smoke drove the birds from their nests. Another means of capturing these birds was to feed them grain soaked in alcohol, which made them easier to catch.

Loss of habitat and introduced diseases were also factors in their disappearance, as was the fact that they were eaten extensively in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1805, in New York City, a pair of pigeons could be bought for two cents. As a result, some slaves and servants never tasted any meat but pigeon. Even when there was only one large flock (of 250,000 birds) left, the hunters, who knew what was happening, did not spare it.

After people realized -- and cared -- that the birds were going extinct in the wild, there was no way to reintroduce them. Flocks of passenger pigeons could only mate if gathered in large numbers; there were not enough pigeons left to make even one of the enormous flocks. For the same reason, captive breeding centers also failed. Mourning doves are the closest relatives of the passenger pigeons. Scientists may someday use them to clone the passenger pigeon. This is similar to how scientists are trying to bring the quagga, which was similar to the zebra, back from extinction.

qgga.jpgThe quagga's face and neck looked like a zebra's, but the stripes faded along the back to a plain brown. Because of these unusual markings, it was hunted for its skin. It was also valued for its meat and, like the locusts and the pigeons, farmers thought of it as a nuisance. Now, people regret that they killed off this harmless horse, and are trying to breed horses that look more and more like the quagga once was.

It is important to remember the past so that we do not repeat it. Yet any kind of reintroduction, for any species, will not change the fact that their dying out was a disaster that could have been easily avoided... and wasn't.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Jaz Brisack in June 2010.

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