This year—on or about September 1—marks the hundredth anniversary of the death of a passenger pigeon named Martha, and thus of the passage into extinction of what had only decades prior been one of the most famously abundant bird species on earth. This plunge from billions to zero, from migrating populations that darkened the sky for hours to the absolute reality of nonexistence, was a fully anthropogenic extinction; the teeming birds were hunted relentlessly and systematically for meat, and their nests were targeted and torched so effectively that the birds weren’t able to reproduce fast enough to keep up with the pace of destruction. What’s most striking to me, though, as I read Barry Yeoman’s account, is the human inability to understand and grapple with our own existential power. Back in the mid- and even late-1800s, when those sky-blackening pigeons still numbered in the tens of millions, it was incomprehensible that they could be hunted to extinction. And even when their decimation was everywhere evident, hardened attitudes and behaviors couldn’t change fast enough to halt the death spiral.
I find a chilling parallel there to a rather more contemporary situation, one in which masses of people—maybe all of us, initially—find it impossible to accept the impact we can have on something so much larger than us, something so huge, in this case, as our planet’s climate systems. And in which, once the evidence becomes irrefutable (as it has, make no mistake), the momentum of the decline, the enormity of the challenge, seems so overwhelming as to arouse nothing but despair and defeat.
What blinded our forebears to the plight of the passenger pigeon was that awesome plenitude, those tens-of-millions-strong migrating flocks. We may be blinded by similar self-deceptions today. In September, Audubon will release the results of a six-year study on the potential impacts of various climate scenarios on future bird ranges. You’ll be hearing much more about this in time, but the news is dire—and it’s not just about species that we’ve already identified as threatened or endangered, but some of our most common and seemingly plentiful birds as well.
One of the striking things we see in our bird/climate models is how critical the habitat of the northern Great Plains will be for birds under any future climate scenario. That’s one reason the passage in February of the new farm bill, with strong conservation provisions that will be particularly effective in the Plains states, was such a welcome victory. Despair and defeat are not an option here. We need to cherish and build on every habitat-protecting advancement we can make. And we need to ensure that the story of the passenger pigeon never loses its power to shock and inspire.