All gone: How erasing billions of birds shocked us

It was the moment that humanity learned we had the awesome power to erase an entire species off the face of the Earth in the scientific equivalent of a blink of an eye: The passenger pigeon went from billions of birds to extinct before our very eyes.

It was one bird’s death after many. But a century ago, Martha, a red-eyed, grey and brown bird famous as the last surviving passenger pigeon, keeled over, marking an extinction that shook science and the public.

Now, a century later, Martha’s back, in a way. She is being taken out of the file cabinets of history in a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit this month, reminding the public of her death, and of other species that have gone extinct because of man. A new scientific study this week shows how pigeon populations fluctuated wildly, but how people ultimately killed off the species.

And some geneticists are even working on the longshot hope of reviving the passenger pigeon from leftover DNA in stuffed birds.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird species on Earth. In 1866 in Ontario, just one flock of billions of birds, 300 miles long and one mile wide, darkened the skies for 14 hours as they flew by overhead. Unlike the domesticated carrier pigeon used for messages, these were wild birds.

They were easy to catch because they stayed together. They were considered a poor man’s food; domestic workers complained about eating too much passenger pigeon.

Examination of the passenger pigeon’s genetic code shows that their population ping-ponged regularly from as much as 5 billion to as few as tens of millions, said a study co-authored by Zink in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences released Monday. Still, the chief causes of the extinction — cutting down Eastern U.S. forests and hunting — were man-made.

By 1900, there we no passenger pigeons left in the wild. By 1914, there was just 29-year-old Martha at the Cincinnati Zoo. People lined up to see her. She was a star.

Then on Sept. 1, 1914, Martha was found lying on the bottom of her cage. The passenger pigeon was now extinct. It had gone from billions of birds to zero in about one century, probably less.

It was the first public extinction, something people used to think happened only to relics of the past like dinosaurs, or critters stuck on islands like dodos.

And Martha, the last of her kind, was put in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to Washington D.C. and the Smithsonian. She was stuffed and mounted, continuing as a star. 

An exhibit on her extinction and the 100th anniversary starts June 24 at the Smithsonian.

Here in Louisiana, we have our own bird on the brink of extinction. 

Whooping cranes are among the world’s largest and rarest birds. Only about 600 are alive, all descended from 15 that lived in coastal Texas in the 1940s. They are protected under state and federal laws.

Fifty have been banded, tagged with radio transmitters and released in southwest Louisiana since early 2011 in an attempt to create a flock like those that once lived in the area.

Hopefully, we’ve learned from Martha – and past mistakes – so the whooping crane isn’t erased from everywhere but the Smithsonian. 

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Posted by on Jun 19 2014. Filed under Editorial. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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