Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Project Passenger Pigeon

NHS' very own Passenger Pigeon specimen, collected and mounted by A.L. Babcock.
Photographed by our Curator Kate Herron.

Birds again you say? Hold that thought! We will continue with our normally scheduled program in the next post, but first, let's pause to consider the famed Passenger Pigeon, its extinction, and what that means for us today.

Did you know that, thanks to our friend A.L. Babcock, the Natick Historical Society has a rare Passenger Pigeon specimen? And did you know that 2014 is being celebrated as "The Year of the Passenger Pigeon?" 2014 marks 100 years since the last known Passenger Pigeon specimen died. Her name (yes, she had a name!) was Martha and her life was documented by a scientist at the University of Chicago as well as the Cincinnati Zoo where she died of "old age" on September 1, 1914 (you can read more about Martha here). How strange indeed to live in a time when we can note the exact time and day an entire species became extinct, find overwhelming evidence of the decline in the historical record, and yet end up with such a result?!

This anniversary provides a critical moment to consider how we today can lead more sustainable lives because, after all, our lifestyles directly affect the animals and habitats we live with and, as the young boy in the video below notes so clearly, "if there is no nature, there is no us."

PICTURE THIS: Passenger Pigeons once lived here in such abundance that one particular flock was noted in southern Ontario, Canada during the 1860s as having been, "1 mi (1.5 km) wide and 300 mi (500 km) long, took 14 hours to pass, and held in excess of 3.5 billion birds." Naturalist Joel Greenberg has written an intriguing book entitled, "A Feathered River Across the Sky," which traces the bird's history, explores how such a common creature could be wiped from the face of the earth so quickly, and the repercussions of this man-made extinction. He's also involved in the making of this upcoming documentary:

So just how did these ubiquitous birds become extinct you ask? The short answer is that it all started with deforestation by European settlers in North America, slowly destroying the bird's natural habitat (a problem that persists today and continues to affect animal populations of all kinds). By the late 1800s, the birds were being hunted on an enormous scale as a source of cheap meat (if you are interested in the often strange, fervid, and various ways these birds were hunted, read the third paragraph of this Stanford essay here). When scientists realized how much the Passenger Pigeon population had diminished, it was too late to save them since they only reproduced within large colonies.

It's interesting to note that today, de-extinction efforts are actually underway. As we consider our own Passenger Pigeon here in Natick, what questions must we ask of our own behavior towards nature? How can we make such efforts unnecessary and safeguard our neighborhood, indeed the world, for ourselves, our children, and future generations?