This month 100 years ago, the last Passenger Pigeon, a bird named Martha, living in the Cincinnati Zoo, died,
leaving the world with the question: how could such a numerous species disappear so quickly?
The Passenger Pigeon, occurring only in North America, was one of the most abundant bird species, with an estimate ranging from 3-5 billion individuals (about a quarter of the continent’s bird population). These birds would flock in tens of thousands, literally darkening the sky for days as they migrated from one seasonal crop to another. This nomadic lifestyle let them take advantage of the superabundance of berries, nuts, and insects at different points in the year, as well as protection from predators due to their immense numbers.
When early European colonists first laid eyes on these flocks, they were in awe of such a prolific species and also quickly saw in them a potential food source that appeared to be unlimited. Like all of the planet’s resources however, Passenger Pigeon’s did not have a limitless population and human overexploitation
doomed the existence of the species. The combination of unchecked hunting, habitat loss and the nonstop
disturbance of nesting quickly led to a sharp decline in the species numbers, and toward the end of the 19th century the Passenger Pigeon went from having nearly a billion individuals to none in the wild in the span of about 30 years.
Commemorating the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon this month is a way for us to reflect on the power the human race has on our surrounding environment and the impact we can have on fellow species. By using the example of the pigeons as a cautionary tale of how no resource is limitless, I would encourage everyone to take the time to think about the loss of this species, perhaps while taking a walk in the Arb (which provides
habitat for 90+ species of birds!), and consider what it means to live a sustainable life and how each of us can play a part in lessening our impact as a species on the natural world.
Don’t miss the film ‘From Billions to None: Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction’ showing at 7:30pm in the Bouliou Auditorium on October 13th.