This year, 2014, marks the hundred year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. During the 1800s, North America saw numerous flocks of these birds consisting of millions of individual birds. The flight of a flock could take hours to pass overhead and span hundreds of miles long. The legacy of the passenger pigeon may be the conservation methods and legislation established after its demise as a species. The bird is one of the top candidates for de-extinction, the scientific and controversial topic of bringing a species back to life.
The migratory birds were hunted both for their feathers and as a source of meat in the 1800s. Those people hunting the birds would cast nets and come away with hundreds or even thousands of pigeons at one time as the flocks flew from breeding grounds to winter in the south. The birds’ breeding grounds were in the Northeastern and Midwestern states. The northern breeding grounds were negatively impacted from 1850 through the late 1870s when railroads were built nearby. It was at this time that an impact on the passenger pigeon population began to be noticeable.
The birds were unique in that they formed enormous flocks as a defense against any predators. The flocks were stupendously large but few in numbers as opposed to other migratory birds which form numerous flocks with lower overall populations. According to Janis Sacco, Harvard Museums of Science and Culture’s director of exhibitions, the illusion of abundance in the number of overall passenger pigeons was exacerbated by their flocking methods. Hunters may have been unaware of the impact they were causing by capturing so many of the birds. The birds’ tendency to flock in such huge numbers was one of the leading causes of the extinction of the passenger pigeon.
While Americans were familiar with the concept of extinction in the late 1800s, the overall attitude at the time appeared to the attitude of impossibility. People simply did not believe that that they could cause the extinction of a species that was comprised of so many birds. According to experts, the actual extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914 as the last remaining bird died was the first time that people truly became aware that they could cause the extinction of an entire species. At the time conservationists attempted to protect the birds but each time a bill was brought forth to the legislature, the action was generally denied. Michigan saw some success in having a bill passed that made it illegal to net the birds if they were within two miles of their breeding grounds but the law generally wasn’t enforced.
After the last passenger pigeon died in zoo in 1914, a number of legal movements that would protect animals began. The first was established in 1918 and was the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This act was a protection of migratory flocks from hunters without permits. Ultimately, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 after being signed into law by President Richard Nixon on December 28. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the intent of the ESA was to provide for the conservation of threatened or endangered species and to halt and reverse a trend toward species extinction no matter what the cost. This law applies to any species threatened by extinction including wildlife, fish, and plants. The Act is administered by both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
September 1 will mark the hundred year anniversary of the death of the last remaining passenger pigeon. A number of research teams are attempting to use DNA gathered from museum specimens to see if it may be possible to bring the passenger pigeon back from extinction. According to zoologist Ross MacPhee from the American Museum of Natural History, the de-extinction may be possible within the next several years.
By Dee Mueller
on twitter @TuesdayDG