Thursday, January 2, 2014

The once plentiful passenger pigeon

A stuffed passenger pigeon
My family kept a few National Geographic World Explorer books for kids in the house while I was growing up. The nature ones were my favourite. I poured over them regularly, fascinated by illustrations comparing the eye sight of eagles to humans and the relative speed animals move. On one page, there was an illustration of a covered-wagon-era family on the prairies looking up at a sky darkened by a flock of passenger pigeons passing by. Even then, it amazed me that a bird once so plentiful is now gone like the dodo and thylacine (Tasmanian tiger).

Once passenger pigeons might have been the most numerous birds on the planet, numbering in the billions. Their spiral to extinction was shockingly fast. The passenger pigeon's crime was eating grains and other crops, so people went out and systematically killed them, some were eaten, some fed to pigs and most left to rot. At the start of the 1880's these pigeons were still nesting in the millions. Twenty years later, the last wild passenger pigeon was shot March 24, 1900 in Ohio. Only a few were left in captivity.

The last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago this year. The pigeon, Martha, lived her life in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. When she died, Martha was sent to the Smithsonian, stuffed and put on display. There are many passenger pigeons in museum collections, which means genetic material from these birds is available. In the near future, genetically re-engineering recently extinct animals like the passenger pigeon could be possible, but should we?

My husband, who is a curator at the local museum, offered to show me one of the three passenger pigeons held in the museum's collection. Unlike the flocks containing millions of birds once found in the more eastern areas of North America, passenger pigeons were only rare visitors to BC. For anyone who is curious, the Project Passenger Pigeon site contains a lot of information about passenger pigeons including ranges by province and state.

The photo is of the best preserved specimen at the museum held up by my husband as I wouldn't dare hold such an irreplaceable specimen. The iridescent rust body reminds me of the colour of the robin's I see in my backyard, but the body shape is pure pigeon. I kept domestic pigeons around the same time I was pouring over the World Explorer books. I loved the sound my birds made. I wonder if passenger pigeons had the same soft coo?

As a tangent: here is someone collecting the old World Explorer books for the apocalypse.

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