Passenger Pigeons and Whooping Cranes Similar Histories

One hundred years ago on September 1, 1914 the last passenger pigeon on earth died. This was a sad day in American history. Passenger pigeons were now extinct. The last member of this species, known as Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. During the 1700’s and 1800’s there were an estimated 3 to 5 billion of these birds in the United States and Canada. Now they are all gone forever.

passenger pigeons Detail of Martha from “Martha, The Last Passenger Pigeon” by artist John Ruthven. The painting has been made into an ArtWorks project mural to mark the upcoming centennial anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Martha, the last pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. The Enquirer/Glenn Hartong.

Figure 1. Detail of Martha from “Martha, The Last Passenger Pigeon” by artist John Ruthven. The painting has been made into an ArtWorks project mural to mark the upcoming centennial anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Martha, the last pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. The Enquirer/Glenn Hartong.

In a letter to President Obama a coalition of conservation organizations have described the extinction of the passenger pigeon as an American-caused wildlife tragedy (see letter below).

The letter expresses dismay and hope: “Today, the centenary of that momentous event is a powerful reminder of how precious – and at times how fragile – is the web of life that sustains us all.  It is also a reminder of how far we’ve come in preventing future tragedies thanks to landmark conservation achievements such as the Endangered Species Act.”

Americans have learned from past mistakes and abuses from such tragedies as the passenger pigeons and other species. Importantly, these lessons must be applied to other species. Whooping cranes are one of the endangered species where our knowledge must be applied. Similar to the decline of passenger pigeons, the whooping crane population was reduced to just 15 birds in 1950 by unregulated hunting and massive habitat losses.

passenger pigeons Figure 2. Unregulated hunting and massive habitat destruction caused extinction of the passenger pigeon.

Figure 2. Unregulated hunting and massive habitat destruction caused extinction of the passenger pigeon.

Fortunately conservationist intervened and brought a halt to hunting of whooping cranes. Later the Endangered Species Act strengthened our efforts. Yet, destruction of the cranes habitat continues to be a major obstacle. Habitat destruction has slowed but continues.

In recent years diminished fresh water river flows into the estuaries of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge complex have become another major threat. Where river flows are not reduced, the fresh water salt water mix in estuaries produce abundant foods for whooping cranes and numerous other species.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) contend that whooping crane habitat

Whooping Crane in flight

Figure 3. Whooping Crane in flight. Photo by John David McKinnon

must become a major priority for our nation. Habitat for the cranes also serves as habitat for numerous other wildlife species including waterfowl.

FOTWW remains concerned because extinct passenger pigeons and endangered whooping cranes have similar histories. Importantly, FOTWW hopes citizens and government officials can learn from the passenger pigeon’s fate and apply it to protect whooping cranes and their habitat.

FOTWW is one of the conservation groups supporting the following letter. So, while citizens reflect on the passenger pigeon there is a need to increase efforts to continue being good stewards of wildlife and all of nature.

by Chester McConnell, FOTWW

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Letter to President Obama by coalition of conservation organizations:

August 5, 2014

The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington D.C. 20500

Dear Mister President:
We rarely know the exact date an entire species goes extinct, but in one case we do. On September 1, 1914 Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died alone in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. It was the first famous extinction, as Martha’s last days and our collective powerlessness to prevent an American-caused wildlife tragedy captivated and perhaps shocked the public.

September 1, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of this sad day in American history.

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, perhaps even the world, numbering 3 to 5 billion.  Passenger pigeons were once so common that passing flocks would literally darken the skies for hours and even days at a time. Yet the passenger pigeon was driven to extinction in just a few decades in the late 19th century.  It was caused primarily by unregulated market hunting – even on the nesting grounds – and enabled by seemingly benign technologies including the telegraph, which gave hunters advanced notice of flock locations, and railroads, which enabled box cars of pigeon carcasses to be shipped to eastern cities.

For something so common and prolific to be gone in such a short span of time is a valuable lesson in the importance of preserving our nation’s magnificent wildlife and natural heritage.  The story is unique in the annals of American history.

The extinction of the passenger pigeon helped to catalyze the 20th Century American conservation movement.  Today, the centenary of that momentous event is a powerful reminder of how precious – and at times how fragile – is the web of life that sustains us all.  It is also a reminder of how far we’ve come in preventing future tragedies thanks to landmark conservation achievements such as the Endangered Species Act.

Project Passenger Pigeon, a voluntary partnership of over 150 institutions, scientists, conservationists, educators, artists, musicians, filmmakers and others throughout the nation is using the centenary of the species extinction tell the story of the passenger pigeon and to help our fellow citizens reflect on the importance of preserving the natural world.  The Smithsonian Institution has recognized the centenary as a significant enough event to feature Martha, now a preserved specimen, as the centerpiece of Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America, an exhibition of vanished birds of North America currently at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

The undersigned organizations participating in Project Passenger Pigeon as well as other organizations listed here therefore respectfully request that you issue a presidential proclamation commemorating the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon and reminding Americans of the need to be continued good stewards of wildlife and nature.

Thank you for your consideration.

Most Respectfully,

…signed by Friends of the Wild Whoopers and numerous other conservation groups…

***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****

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