September 1, 2010

The End of a Species

Martha, a passenger pigeon, died on this day in 1914. She was thought to be the last passenger pigeon in the world, and when she died in a Cincinnati zoo, people sadly declared the species extinct. No passenger pigeon has been seen anywhere in the world since.

This species was hunted to extinction, although of course there were population reductions due to loss of habitat, as well. These birds traveled and nested in huge flocks, sometimes more than two billion birds in a flock! As flocks flew by, they sometimes stretched a mile wide and 300 miles long across the sky, taking several hours to pass. These huge numbers made the passenger pigeon one of the most common birds in the world in the nineteenth century.

And it became extinct in the early years of the twentieth century!

It's sad to read that super unfair and inhumane hunting methods were used to kill these birds, and that as late as 1896, hunters killed the final flock of 250,000 passenger pigeons—even though everyone knew that it was the last large flock! Apparently in one place in Michigan alone, 50,000 birds were killed per day throughout a hunting season that lasted almost five months. Dead birds—used for meat—were shipped by the boxcar-full to Eastern cities.

During the last two decades of this species' existence, conservationists tried to breed passenger pigeons in captivity. However, the birds were used to living and breeding in huge groups, and in small flocks, birds did not mate successfully nor live long. The only silver lining to this sad story is that people became aware of human impact on species and of the possibility of extinction because of overhunting. New laws and practices arose because of this extinction, and surely some creatures still live today because of that new interest in conservation.

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