Criticism — From the November 2015 issue

Rethinking Extinction

Toward a less gloomy environmentalism

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A little more than a hundred years ago, a bird named Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her death was remarkable in the annals of extinction not only because we know its precise date — September 1, 1914 — but also because only decades earlier the passenger pigeon had been the most abundant bird on earth. Martha’s demise helped to transform American beliefs about our relationship with nature, and the bird became an icon in the environmental movement, which was emerging just as she died.

Among the many billions of passenger pigeons who predeceased Martha was her cage mate, George, who died in 1910. The pair were named after Martha and George Washington. In the century that separated the first First Lady from the last passenger pigeon, the American economy went through a profound transformation. The country’s population increased more than tenfold, and average income more than quadrupled. Only 6 percent of Americans lived in cities when Martha Washington died, in 1802. In 1914, the number was closer to 50 percent. The passenger pigeon’s extinction was bound up with these changes, and what happened to the bird tells us much about what happened — and is still happening — to us.

Tourists came from near and far to see Martha after George’s death. The aerial displays of passenger pigeons had astonished their parents and grandparents, but at the zoo they found a pathetic creature with “drooping wings, atremble with the palsy of extreme old age,” in the words of a reporter. To dissuade the public from flinging sand at her to make her move, the zookeepers roped off her cage.

A portrait of Martha, the last passenger pigeon © Paul D. Stewart/Science Source

A portrait of Martha, the last passenger pigeon © Paul D. Stewart/Science Source

After her death, Martha was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington. Her internal organs were removed and preserved in the museum’s “wet collections,” and her skin was stuffed and mounted for display. In 1977, when the Cincinnati Zoo opened a passenger-pigeon memorial, Martha was flown in for the dedication ceremony. She traveled first class.

The species at greatest risk for extinction tend to be small, geographically isolated populations: of the 140 documented bird extinctions since the sixteenth century, 133 were species found only on islands. The passenger pigeon was different. Unlike, say, the black mamo, which was endemic to the island of Molokai in the Hawaiian archipelago and went extinct around the same time, the pigeon had a range that covered most of the United States and Canada east of the Rockies, north of the Gulf of Mexico, and south of Hudson Bay. And its sheer numbers were almost beyond belief.

The ornithologist Alexander Wilson, writing at the dawn of the nineteenth century, described a flock crossing the Ohio River:

A column, eight or ten miles in length, would appear from Kentucky . . . steering across to Indiana. The leaders of this great body would sometimes gradually vary their course, until it formed a large bend, of more than a mile in diameter, those behind tracing the exact route of their predecessors. This would continue sometimes long after both extremities were beyond the reach of sight, so that the whole, with its glittery undulations, marked a space on the face of the heavens resembling the windings of a vast and majestic river.

Wilson estimated the number of pigeons in the flock using its density, breadth, speed, and the time it took to pass overhead, and came up with a count of 2,230,272,000. In Birds and People (2013), Mark Cocker, a British naturalist, concludes that while this was probably an overestimate, Wilson had undoubtedly seen “well over a billion birds.” And that was just one flock; at any given time several were likely to have existed on the continent, plus a scattering of smaller groups and individuals.

A. W. Schorger, whose 1955 monograph on the passenger pigeon is the most exhaustive — some might say obsessive — assemblage of information about the species, reckoned that its total population when Europeans first reached America was 3 to 5 billion. To put this number in perspective, the current worldwide population of rock doves — what most people recognize as pigeons — is around 260 million.

The passenger pigeon is held in tender regard by environmentalists today, but it is worth pausing to imagine the birds in their heyday. The majestic rivers in the sky could inspire not only awe but also dread. When a flock appeared in Columbus, Ohio, in the spring of 1855, and blotted out the sun, “Children screamed and ran for home,” according to an account published years later in the Columbus Dispatch. “Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped on their knees and prayed.”

The birds roosted and nested in enormous colonies. The largest on record, found in central Wisconsin in 1871, extended for 850 square miles. As many as 300 birds would alight in a single tree, shattering trunks and branches with an effect that was likened to that of a tornado or hurricane. The clearings the pigeons created were soon populated by species that did not thrive in dense forest. The fuel buildup from broken limbs increased the intensity of fires. Pigeon excrement altered the nutrient balance of the soil. The birds’ heavy consumption of red-oak acorns is believed to have tilted the composition of eastern forests in favor of white oaks. In these respects, the passenger pigeon was a keystone species, which helped shape the ecosystems of eastern North America.

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