Imagine a sunny day, suddenly turned dark. But it is no cloud that is blocking the sun, and the drops that have started to fall are not rain. There is a hum vibrating the air. You look up to see that the sky is positively filled with birds. A tremendous flock of passenger pigeons is passing overhead, and the flock stretches as far as the eye can see. There are literally millions of birds and it will take hours for the entire flock to pass.
Such was the experience of those who witnessed the passenger pigeon. These birds were possibly the most numerous in the world, yet ingenious men were able to hunt them out of existence. It was the most spectacular human-caused extinction… so far.
Flocks of passenger pigeons were so dense and low flying that they provided obscenely easy hunting. Hunting, of course, is hardly the right word for the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon. Native Americans would bring down birds by simply hurling sticks and rocks into the passing flock. At places, the flocks would fly low enough for long poles to strike birds right out of the air.
The introduction of firearms made the harvesting of pigeons even easier. A single shotgun blast into a thick flock could bring down a great number of the birds. Huge nets were also introduced, capable of catching hundreds or even thousands at a time. These readily killed and captured birds became an important and affordable food source for a great number of people, and commercial operations continually ramped up “production”, taking tens of thousands of birds a day.
Over time, of course, this proved unsustainable. The large-scale hunting of pigeons, particularly when they gathered to breed, caused the population to dwindle from the billions to the millions. Legislation was eventually introduced to try to prevent the eradication of the entire species, but it was ineffective.
The last large nesting happened in 1878, and the hunters were ready. Over the next five months, commercial hunters killed over seven million birds. The few survivors scattered, and breeding all but stopped. The last confirmed sighting of a wild passenger pigeon was in 1901. It was shot.
Although there were several pigeons at various zoos, captive breeding was unsuccessful. In 1914, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. The most prolific bird in the world had gone extinct in a remarkably short time.
So what is to be made of this disturbing tale?
A pessimist may look on the demise of the passenger pigeons as a sign of man’s cruel and destructive nature. The practice of blinding captive birds to act as live decoys (aka “stool pigeons”) to draw in other birds, sure seems to make men seem downright evil. And although the pigeon is a spectacular example, there are all sorts of other ways in which we see man wreaking unchecked havoc on our natural world.
An optimist, however, may look at how far we have come in a century. Today, hunters are leaders in conservation efforts. There are several species of animals that are slowly making a comeback from the brink of extinction. Now more than ever, we are beginning to understand the vast power we have to impact nature. As a result, we have the ability to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
A detached economic thinker may view passenger pigeon presents a remarkable real-world example of the tragedy of the commons. Each hunter personally benefited from each bird that he killed, but the whole society shared the loss. This imbalance created the incentive for hunters to take as many birds as they could, even if that meant unsustainable depletion of the entire flock.
Additionally, the demise of the passenger pigeon allows for reflection on seen and unseen economic results. We see that there are no more birds, but what we do not see is the effects that the extinction has on other groups. Farmers, presumably, are not overly upset at the loss of the passenger pigeon. The birds were tremendous agricultural pests. In fact, it has been suggested that the pigeons only reached the height of their population with the introduction of European-style agriculture. Although we have lost a valuable resource in the form of the birds, it is worth considering the positive results for the farmers who are rid of such a numerous menace.
And a maniac may think of the passenger pigeon as a wonderful opportunity to do morally questionable things with science. See, Martha and a number of other specimens have been stuffed or otherwise preserved. Given the state of cloning technology, it is not impossible that the passenger pigeon should be de-extincted. That seems like an awfully expensive project. Perhaps that money should be spent on trying to conserve other species. Maybe that would show that we have learned something from the demise of the passenger pigeon.
Beer of the week: Coopers Original Pale Ale – Thomas Cooper founded Coopers Brewery in Australia in the 1860’s. There is no reason to think that Thomas is any relation to James Fenimore Cooper. But who knows? This bottle conditioned ale is pale and cloudy. (Although the neon lighting in this picture makes it look a bit odd.) The aroma and flavor are somewhat floral. Overall, it is a delicious and eminently drinkable beer. As something of a bonus, it comes in 12.7 oz bottles. It seems that when Australia went metric, they decided to go up to 375 mL bottles rather than down to .3 L bottles like some countries.
Reading for the week: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, Volume 2, Chapter III – This novel was published in 1823, many years before any significant decline in the pigeon population was noted. The pigeon hunt described in this chapter is thoroughly impressive. In the end, a few of the characters come to see how disturbing and unsustainable the practice is. “It’s much better to kill only such as you want, without wasting your powder and lead, than to be firing into God’s creatures in this wicked manner,” says one of the main characters.
Question for the week: If the passenger pigeon could be revived through cloning, should it be done?