A shocking account of how the passenger pigeon, a bird found only in North America, became extinct.
The year 2014 marks the centenary of the death of the last passenger pigeon known to be alive. In 1860, the bird’s population was estimated to be somewhere between 1 billion and 3 billion. Four decades later, they were on the verge of extinction. More than 150 environmental institutions are involved in Project Passenger Pigeon, an effort that Chicago Academy of Sciences research associate Greenberg (Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing, 2008, etc.) helped spearhead. The group works to spur consideration of current environmental issues, and the author hopes that his chronicle of the tragic events leading to the pigeon’s extinction will “act as a cautionary tale so that it is not repeated.” When Europeans arrived in North America, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird species, and it was a significant food source for Native Americans. The number of pigeons increased as European diseases decimated the Indian population. The pigeons were also a source of high-quality protein for the early colonists. Up until the post–Civil War period, a modus vivendi seemed to have been established between bird and human, and Greenberg cites a report of “a pigeon flight along the Ohio River that eclipsed the sun for three days.” At the time, a record nesting of pigeons covered 850 miles. The author even hypothesizes that the white oak predominates in America because of the pigeon's preference for red-oak acorns. However, with the advent of railroads across the continent, it became profitable for commercial enterprises to sweep them up from prairie nesting sites and ship them by the tens of thousands to distant markets. Young squabs were particularly desirable, writes the author, but older live pigeons were also captured for trap-shooting contests, which were an occasion for significant gambling.
A grim reminder of the many “reasons why species should be preserved.”