Monday, September 01, 2014

Passenger Pigeons and Conservation

Martha in 1911. From Arbor Day and Bird Day (1922).
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon. Martha likely hatched in captivity sometime in the 1880s and at some point landed in a small collection of Passenger Pigeons at the Cincinnati Zoo. In 1910, she became the last pigeon left in their collection, and by her death in 1914, she was the last known Passenger Pigeon in captivity or in the wild.

In truth, Passenger Pigeons had been extinct in the wild for some time. The last recorded sighting was a wild pigeon shot in Ohio in 1900. By then the species had already been scarce for about a decade.

This was all the more shocking because Passenger Pigeons had once been so abundant, with a total North American population numbering in the billions. Early ornithologists such as John James Audubon remarked on the vast migratory flocks that could take days to pass. The pigeons bred around the Great Lakes region in vast communal nesting colonies. As late as the mid-19th century, Passenger Pigeons were still abundant. However, changes in technology made it easier for market hunters to locate flocks and nesting colones and ship thousands of carcasses to cities for sale as food.

The rapid decline and extinction of the Passenger Pigeon that followed was one of several events that inspired the early conservation movement. Federal laws such as the Lacey Act of 1900 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 were too late to help the Passenger Pigeon but have protected other birds since then. They, along with the Endangered Species Act, can continue to protect birds (and other wildlife) as long as their protections remain in place and are enforced. The anniversary of Martha's death should serve as a reminder that no matter how secure or abundant a species may appear, it can disappear rapidly under the right combination of circumstances.

Some links on Passenger Pigeons: