In 1834 a geologist named George William Featherstonbaugh was traveling through the American South when he came across a migration of passenger pigeons, at the time the most plentiful bird on the continent. “Flocks of them many miles long came across the country, one flight succeeding to another, obscuring the daylight,” he wrote. “When such myriads of timid birds as the wild pigeon are on the wing, often wheeling and performing evolutions almost as complicated as pyrotechnic movements, and creating whirlwinds as they move, they present an image of the most fearful power. Our horse, Missouri, at such times, has been so cowed by them, that he would stand still and tremble in his harness.”
Seventy years later the passenger pigeon was extinct, the victim of such savage hunting of adults and squabs alike that the birds could no longer reproduce enough to keep up. The development of the telegraph and railroad helped create an industry of itinerant pigeon hunters who followed the flocks and killed and shipped the birds by the millions for sale as food in urban markets. The pigeons also suffered from the human belief that our own activity couldn’t possibly wipe out such an abundant species.
The last passenger pigeon, a female named Martha, died around September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo, where she had lived her entire 29 or so years. Now, during the centennial of Martha’s death, a group of enthusiasts is planning a year of commemorations. They hope to educate the public not just about the pigeon but also about the value of wildlife conservation and our role in preventing natural disasters, including extinctions.
Among the highlights of Project Passenger Pigeon will be the publication of a book, A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg, a research associate with Chicago’s Field Museum and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum; and the release of David Mrazek’s documentary film From Billions to None. There will be conferences and exhibitions, including a downloadable exhibit produced by the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History that libraries, schools, and others can adapt for their own use. There will also be a passenger-pigeon-themed symphony and, possibly, additional dance and theater performances nationwide.
By focusing on this remarkable bird’s heyday and demise, Project Passenger Pigeon’s organizers hope to call attention to animals currently at risk, including 11 species of endangered crane, the whale shark, and the little brown bat, which could disappear from the eastern United States within the next 15 years. “I believe in teachable moments,” says David Blockstein, senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment. “One of the real dangers we have in the conservation area is each generation’s ratcheting down of our knowledge and expectations. You go out in a migration and say, ‘Boy, this is great. I saw so many warblers today.’ But if you had been there 50 years ago, what you see today is a just small percentage of that. The centenary is a way to try to ratchet back up expectations of what wild America can be.”