“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.” — Aldo Leopold
This weekend, while many were reveling in summer’s last hurrah and others were bemoaning the return of school and an end to carefree days, the world attended a solemn anniversary. You may have missed it, amidst the Labor Day frivolity and merriment, but September 1st marked the centenary of a great demise: on that day in 1914—with the death of Martha, last of her kind—the Passenger Pigeon slipped into extinction.
Of course, it didn’t do so on its own. Like others before it—the Giant Moa, the Dodo, the Great Auk—the Passenger Pigeon vanished through the actions of man, a victim of thoughtless exploitation and callous indifference. At its height, it was North America’s—and perhaps the planet’s—dominant bird: five billion strong, an avian press of life not seen before or since, an unstoppable force of nature lit by primordial fire. Throughout the 19th century, stories abounded of pigeon flocks millions strong, migrating in living clouds that darkened the skies for hours, feathered floods that stunned observers and silenced conversation under thunderous wings.
In Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold wrote:
“The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life.”
It seemed impossible that anything so abundant could ever disappear. And yet by 1914, they were gone. Mere decades after their heyday, Passenger Pigeons fell from billions to one: Martha, a female born and raised in captivity—an oddity for humans to gawk at, and a sad reminder of the multitude that was, destined to follow the rest of her kind into the inevitable void.
One hundred years later, we mourn the passing of this iconic bird, and lament its fate at the hands of people who burned its homes and hunted it out of existence, blind to the idea that their actions could lead to its undoing. It’s a cautionary tale that bears repeating, for there are many others today riding the knife-edge of oblivion: Atlantic Puffins, Piping Plovers, Red Knots, Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, American Kestrels, Arctic and Least Terns—all these birds, and more besides, risk sharing the pigeon’s fate.
And yet there are lights in the darkness, small reasons to hope. There are birds that we’ve grasped from the plunge. When I was growing up, Eastern Bluebirds and Bald Eagles were creatures of myth, spoken of in reverent tones but rarely seen. Now, bluebirds grace our yard every year, and eagles have reclaimed the sky. Peregrine Falcons and Ospreys have rebounded from DDT’s pernicious assault, and even the California Condor is staging a comeback. Though still at risk, the resurgence of these birds is testament to the power of the human spirit and the strength of our collective will. Yes, we can drive species to extinction, but we can also bring them back from the brink.
So let us celebrate the Passenger Pigeon and the life that was. Let us honor the lost, laud those we’ve saved, and fight to preserve all we have left. Let us recognize that we have the power to destroy, but let us also remember that we have the capacity to restore. And above all, let us ensure that Martha and her kin did not die in vain, that we redress our unfortunate mistake, and that, one hundred years from now, we aren’t marking another dire anniversary.
Russel McLendon wrote about the Passenger Pigeon for Mother Nature Network, and you can find his posts below:
National Public Radio’s The Two-Way also featured a show about the birds, which you can find here.
And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a piece about the Passenger Pigeon here.