Finding Your Own Passenger Pigeon

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This past year was the centenary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. Across the United States, Canada, and many other countries, this occasion was used as a time to commemorate this species and consider our role as the dominant species on the planet.

The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon was a profound landmark in humanity’s interaction with other species. Humans had caused extinctions before, but this bird was not fundamental to our survival, as were Ice Age mammals. Its extinction was not really accidental, like the Labrador Duck, and it was certainly not due to ignorance, since the extinction of species like the Great Auk had been predicted. Further, while the small range and ecological specialization of insular species, such as the Stephen’s Island Wren, make them easy prey for generalist predators and slight habitat changes, the Passenger Pigeon’s numbers were in the billions, with populations covering much of a continent. Unlike most extinctions that happen at the pace of geologic time, the Passenger Pigeon was driven to extinction in a mere fifty years. The mechanism was simple: mindless human consumption, aided by technology.[1]

As a child, the bird guide I consulted still included an entry on the Passenger Pigeon. Unlike the current halfhearted debates about the presence or absence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, no one tried to persuade me that the Passenger Pigeon still flew. The guide clearly marked it as extinct, yet the persisted inclusion of its picture and field marks made me imagine that it might again be found, in the same way that children consider the possibility of a wood elf in the garden.

Later on, as a budding naturalist, the Passenger Pigeon became a literal touchstone when I encountered one in an ornithology collection I was organizing. I gazed at the shimmering pearlescence of its neck feathers and reverently touched its toenail with my shamefully bared finger before once again donning my gloves and continuing my work with other specimens. Though people a generation or two before me had taken away the opportunity to see a living Passenger Pigeon, to experience the awesomeness of its flocks, or to taste of its nut-fattened flesh, I still felt a sense of immediate and personal loss. I soon found kindred spirits who felt equally deprived. I assumed that everyone interested in the natural world was aware of the Passenger Pigeon and felt the emotional disquiet of extinction, if not through this species, then through one with a similar story. However, as I began promoting the commemoration events of 2014, I found this was not the case. At one meeting, the director of a park district raised her hand and asked, “Why do we care about this issue? My son races Passenger Pigeons every Sunday!” Even at several meetings of organismal specialists and ecologists, I found a few people who, though expert in their respective fields, were ignorant of the Passenger Pigeon.

Though this is the “information age,” I have come to expect the general public to be largely ignorant of biological issues. Those of us who care about nature often express astonishment and subtle mockery regarding people who think that meat comes from a grocery store. I met one such person once, a mother who had conscientiously taken her young son to the zoo. She carefully read each sign to the boy and sometimes included a little factoid of her own. In the petting zoo, when a cow ambled over to the fence, she lifted the boy to see more clearly and said, “Look honey, a horse! Can you say ‘horse’?”

While this ignorance seems astonishing on its face, why should this woman know anymore about horses and cows than some biologists do about Passenger Pigeons? Few people today have direct contact with the natural world, or even the people that provide them with natural products. How many of us have ever chased and killed insects, birds, or other pests to ensure an adequate vegetable harvest? Picked cotton or sheared wool and spun it into threads? Kept an animal in captivity for the purposes of breeding it and killing its offspring for food? Have you ever met a lumberjack, miner of metal or coal, farmer, herdsman, or brick maker? Such skills and responsibilities have been fundamental to humankind for thousands of years and, though they remain so today, industrialization and specialization mean that relatively few of us are directly involved in these activities. Seasons have become irrelevant to food production; even human circadian rhythms are altered by our computer screens and artificial lights. For most of us, clothing is something bought off a rack; meat, milk, vegetables, and grains come from a grocery store; metal objects come from the hardware store, a car dealership, or the electronics store—all brightly lit, attractively signed, and staffed by people equally ignorant of the natural origins of these products. A modern person need not leave her home, yet she can still acquire food and ornament from anyplace in the world.

 

Passenger Pigeon, Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927), Wikimedia Commons.
 

Such an unprecedented divorce from the natural world is not found merely in the realm of the agoraphobe; it has become a standard part of daily American life. Try asking your friends, “When is the last time you touched a dead bird?” Answers will vary, but most people will either react with disgust and say “Never!” or will recall some relatively distant occasion. “From this revelation,” you can reply, “I can deduce many things about you. You hate Kentucky Fried Chicken, would never consider eating a Chicken McNugget, and would be appalled to celebrate Thanksgiving with a turkey.” Certainly this deduction might turn out to be true for a vegan friend (even one who has touched a dead bird), but if the demand for chicken products is any indication, it is not true for most of your friends whose bodies include molecules derived from dead birds that they have not only touched but ingested—and recently at that.

These disconnects are entirely justifiable. Each of us has become a specialist of sorts, the direct result of those agricultural experiments carried out in the Ñanchoc Valley and the Fertile Crescent more than nine thousand years ago. By creating settled agricultural societies, the caloric needs of a community can be met through the effort of relatively few people, leaving others to explore realms like art and science. As a member of such a society, ignorance outside one’s specialty has little, if any, cost. In fact, it can pay to actively ignore information. There is simply not enough time to gain the knowledge and experiences necessary to empathize with everyone around you while also succeeding in your specialty.

Even with the time and opportunity, though, one might simply lack interest. Reporting on a camping trip through the Yosemite Valley, Teddy Roosevelt expressed surprise at John Muir’s ignorance of animals:

I was interested and a little surprised to find that, unlike John Burroughs, John Muir cared little for birds or bird songs, and knew little about them. The hermit-thrushes meant nothing to him, the trees and the flowers and the cliffs everything. The only birds he noticed or cared for were some that were very conspicuous, such as the water-ouzels (always particular favorites of mine too.) The second night we camped in a snow-storm, on the edge of the cañon walls, under the spreading limbs of a grove of mighty silver fir; and next day we went down into the wonderland of the valley itself. I shall always be glad that I was in the Yosemite with John Muir and in the Yellowstone with John Burroughs.[2]

Perhaps a living Passenger Pigeon would be conspicuous enough to draw the attention of both John Muir and, say, a modern dance club D.J. On the other hand, I’m content to agree that this species may have no impact on their lives. There are plenty of species that have no utility to humans—they are not good to eat, they are not the source of amazing curative drugs, and we as humans may not even know they exist. Similarly, there are species that have no distinguishing beauty. Sometimes, even taxonomists have trouble telling one species from another.

What I am not content with is the fact that we, as a single and supposedly sapient species, are arbitrarily and ignorantly destroying biodiversity at a rate unprecedented in more than 4.5 billion years. Whether you take the perspective that such biodiversity is the conscious product of a deity’s creation or is the happy accident of amazing natural processes, the destruction is unconscionable. If this rapacious consumption were the result of a single individual’s avarice, perhaps this behavior could be seen to have some kind of justification. But our destruction is not the result of a single person. It is the result of collective decisions: decisions made in the home, the store, and the voting booth; decisions we advertise through our behavior and our bellies. These decisions are not solitary. They affect the world. Your decisions affect me and mine affect you. Daily, even hourly, the news reports how such decisions affect us on a strictly economic basis. Few people are attempting to quantify how such decisions affect us on an ecological basis.

We live in an exciting time where the intellectual, technological, and creative realms have more potential than ever before. The future is exciting but to reject the foundation upon which it has been based—functioning ecosystems and thriving, striving biodiversity—would be folly. Perhaps the form, the story, and the ecological impact of the Passenger Pigeon hold no interest for you. That’s fine with me. But in this new year I hope you will find some organism, some issue, or some epiphany—your own Passenger Pigeon—that will stimulate you both to be a more sustainable steward of our planet and to share your experiences with your family, friends, and neighbors.

[1]. While habitat destruction doubtless played some part in the decline of the Passenger Pigeon, the fact that many of the last birds shot were immature shows that the species could successfully breed in fragmented habitats. It also belies the idea that the Allee effect was necessary for successful fledging. For further reading see J. Greenberg, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2014).

[2]. T. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1913), at http://www.bartleby.com/55/

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