The Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

On this day in 1914, the passenger pigeon, which once numbered in the billions, became extinct when the last individual, Martha, died in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo.

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With a population between 3 and 5 billion, it was by far the most abundant bird in North America, if not the world; flocks were said to stretch on for miles and be thick enough to block out the sun. An account from naturalist John James Audubon claims that one flock was fifty-five miles in length and continued in “undiminished number” for three days.

Massive hunting, deforestation, and industrialization led to a gradual decline throughout the 19th century. The birds were known for their friendliness and sociability, which cruelly contributed to their downfall; the phrase “stool pigeon” for a traitor referred to the practice of tying one up so its distress could lure other birds for trappers and hunters. Farmers also slaughtered them in mass to protect their crops, as pictured below.

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By contrast, it is worth pointing out that indigenous people–who were heavily reliant on the passenger pigeon as a food source–took ingenious steps to preserve their numbers. Targeting nesting birds was often a crime, as it was understood that this would diminish the next generation. Forests were maintained in such a way as to promote a food source for the birds. The end result is that in 15,000 years of pre-European human presence in North America, the bird’s population remained stable even through significant growth in the Native American population.

The passenger pigeon’s extinction was one of the first and most dramatic examples of “anthropogenic extinction” — the eradication of a species by humans, be it directly through activities like hunting, or indirectly via pollution or habitat eradication. The bird’s destruction was particularly cruel and extreme, speaking to humanity’s disregard for “lower species” and propensity to overlook the “bigger picture” in terms of genetics and ecosystem: we took for granted the bird’s sheer numbers without knowing or considering the complex ecology supporting them, or the fact that they needed large numbers to support genetic diversity for reproduction (hence by the time their population fell to the millions, they were likely doomed to die off eventually).

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