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2014: An anniversary to remember

A hundred years ago come September, the last living passenger pigeon on earth, nicknamed “Martha,” died in the Cincinnati Zoo. That would be heart-rending enough, as is the loss of any species or type, including, in late 2013, the confirmed extinction of the western black rhino.

But the story of the passenger pigeon is like no other in recorded history, because less than a century before that fateful year of 1914, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, and quite possibly in the world. We are talking in the tens of billions of birds — flocks so vast they could stretch from one end of the horizon to the other and block out the sun.

The tale of this bewildering, spectacular crash (imagine if, 10 years from now, you woke up and there were no more robins in your backyard, or anyone’s) is told in compelling detail by naturalist Joel Greenberg in “A Feathered River Across the Sky: the Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.” The occasion of this book and the centenary it marks are enough to give us pause to think.

For instance: One of the hottest news stories of 2013 was a purported plan to resurrect the passenger pigeon using techniques hitherto perfected in the science fiction of “Jurassic Park.” The availability of whole specimens raises the possibility of obtaining fairly intact strands of the bird’s genome and engineering them onto the DNA of its closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon.

Before we rush headlong into godlike acts, however, there are a lot of issues to consider, such as: What would happen if we loosed a pioneer flock of 1,000 pigeons upon the land? The America of 2014 is a lot different from that of 1814 when the multitudes roamed the continent and found almost limitless forest to support them and their food source — beechnuts, acorns, and other mast.

Above all, we must try to understand as best we can what drove this species to the end of existence, and to take lessons from that into the present. So let’s rewind the tape and zoom in on the passenger pigeon in its prime.

This was no ordinary city pigeon. Closer in appearance to our common mourning dove, the passenger pigeon was half again as large, sleek and aerodynamically built, with a long tapered tail and lovely plumage: slate-blue head, gray back, and robin-red breast.

Flocks numbering in the millions would fly for days until they found a suitable roost or nesting area. Then they would descend like a storm on the land, as settlers and country folk described. When they departed, they would leave behind a scene of awesome destruction, their sheer magnitude overwhelming their habitat. But in those days, there was always another green forest on the horizon.

As Greenberg strongly believes (and I concur), the American people did in the passenger pigeon, aided by the species’ flocking tendencies. The slaughter of pigeons, mainly for food and for the market, is as unimaginable as the pigeon’s populations. With nets, shotguns and even sticks, “pigeoners,” as they were called, could walk out with thousands of birds each from a single roost.

The advent of the railroad and telegraph in the late 1800s made it academic. Word of a pigeon nesting (which could stretch for more than a 100 square miles) brought in the pigeoners so fast that the birds never had a chance. At some point toward the end of the century, the pigeon massacre, combined with loss of forest habitat, pushed the birds past the tipping point.

The last, small wild flocks were sighted in the early 20th century. No one knows why for certain, but the diminished populations could not reproduce faster than their rate of mortality. The very last of their kind, like Martha, died as captives in zoos and private collections.

Fast forward to now. In the last two issues of 2013, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert pens a fascinating series about the history and science of extinction. One of her conclusions is that we are in a completely new era, the “Anthropocene,” defined by a human-caused worldwide extinction event of unprecedented magnitude.

Are we slaughtering species as we did pigeons? Maybe not. But we are so altering their habitats and environment that most animals and plants cannot keep up with the change. And there may be one place, Greenberg hints, where we are repeating history: in the oceans. Populations of many once-abundant fish, such as cod, haddock, and flounder, are on the brink of collapse from overfishing, and once again we watch, bewildered and seemingly helpless.

Clearly, in this 100th anniversary year of the last passenger pigeon, we still have a lot to learn.

Fred Baumgarten is a birder and regular contributor to Compass and The Lakeville Journal. He lives in Sharon, Conn.