Passenger pigeon

Passenger pigeon

Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Not to be confused with the carrier or homing pigeon, it is documented that passenger pigeons were once the most numerous bird species in North America. Eyewitness accounts around 1860 report that billion-bird flocks darkened the sky in formations reaching hundreds of miles long.

Fifty years later the once prolific passenger pigeon faced complete extinction. “In the intervening years, researchers have agreed that the bird was hunted out of existence, victimized by the fallacy that no amount of exploitation could endanger a creature so abundant.” (June 2014 article in Audubon).

Last ditch efforts to save the species failed. Some states imposed hunting restrictions but the rules were unpopular and difficult to enforce. In 1900 Congress passed The Lacey Act opening an era of federal wildlife protection but by 1914 the last pigeon in captivity Martha (named after Martha Washington) died in Cincinnati. Her remains are at the Smithsonian Natural Museum of History.

Change or repeat history

In August John W. Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, wrote a New York Times op-ed warning that the lesson of the passenger pigeon may be repeated with other bird species if we ignore current warning signs and trends. Fitzpatrick points to the 2014 State of the Birds report that “uses data from long-running, continent-wide population surveys to analyze which bird communities are doing well, and which are in trouble.”

Published on Sept. 9, 2014 the data reveal both grim and hopeful research supported by 19 conservationist organizations including the American Bird Conservancy, the National Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. You can read the full 2014 State of the Birds report here. Prophetically, Thoreau once said: “thank God men cannot fly and lay waste the sky as well as the earth.” We are seeing unmistakable warning signs of the fragility of an exhaustible ecosystem.

Signs of progress

2014 State of the Birds fact sheet

2014 State of the Birds fact sheet

The news isn’t all bad.

Positive change has benefited certain bird populations, particularly winter coastal species such as the American Oystercatcher. In North Carolina this shoreline bird has seen a 30 percent increase in 5 years due to habitat protection, increased education and outreach.

Reflections of the plight of the passenger pigeon have created significant progress in wildlife conservation, reversing the decline of mallards and other waterfowl in coastal areas. Yet, progress is juxtaposed by a steady decline in the populations of migratory shorebirds, such as certain groups of plover who rely on wetland habitats that can destabilize due to climate change and human impacts. The Great Lakes Piping Plover is a prime example of an endangered watch list bird.

We can do better

Due to federal legislation, more than 850 million acres of land and 3.5 million square miles of ocean are being protected, which helps to preserve native bird habitat. The report shows “grassland birds have responded positively to the millions of acres of habitat put back on the land through conservation provisions in the Farm Bill.” However, the report also “identifies common species that still have millions of individuals but have lost half their global population.”

Populations of arid-dwelling birds, such as Sage Grouse, Gilded Flicker and Black-throated Sparrow, have dwindled to half of what they were in1968. Small victories make a collective impact and about 40 percent of Sage Grouse dwell on private land. Idaho rancher Tom Page is among landowners from 11 western states working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve habitat through funding from the Sage Grouse Initiative.

Common Loon / Minnesota DNR

Common Loon / Minnesota DNR

Minnesota faces its own challenges and climate change has become personal. Among the list of endangered birds the common loon is under siege due to habitat changes from warmer weather.  A report from Audubon last month shows that of the 588 species studied 314 are likely to find themselves in dire straits by 2080, including Minnesota’s state bird.

CA Powers

Sources and other reading:

Carrier pigeons through history

Smithsonian Library: Once there were billions

MinnPost: 100 years later: Have we learned from the passenger pigeon extinction?