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Passenger Pigeon: A Stark Reminder for Species Protection

IMAGE: Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions in North America and were easy targets for hunters as they flew in such large numbers. Artist and palaeontologist Julian Pender Hume has studied and written extensively about them, and other birds now extinct. Image used with permission of Hume.
IMAGE: Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions in North America and were easy targets for hunters as they flew in such large numbers. Artist and palaeontologist Julian Pender Hume has studied and written extensively about them, and other birds now extinct. Image used with permission of Hume.
August 29, 2014

SEATTLE - Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Folks in the bird world and the conservation world are taking notice.

In the 1800s, there were perhaps 5 billion passenger pigeons in North America, known for migrating and nesting in giant flocks that made them easy prey for hunters. They were a food source, but Trina Bayard, bird conservation director for Audubon Washington, said traveling in great numbers also made them bad news for farmers.

"They were hunted in every way imaginable," she said. "They were also caught and trapped. They were burned out of their trees. They were poisoned with whiskey-soaked corn. So, the hunting was quite intense on these birds."

For some, Bayard noted, this anniversary also is a reason to urge protection of other species that may face extinction - and for the Endangered Species Act that protects them.

"Passenger pigeons are a very powerful reminder of our ability to exhaust seemingly limitless resources," she said. "From an endangered-species perspective, they're an example of how close to the edge species that are already listed as endangered or threatened really are."

A bill making it more difficult for the public to hold agencies accountable when they fail to comply with the ESA recently passed the U.S. House. Its supporters say they want to curb the numbers of plant and animal species that qualify as "endangered."

Ya-Wei "Jake" Li, director of endangered-species conservation for the group Defenders of Wildlife, said hundreds of species across the nation could disappear if the ESA is not protected.

"There are about 1,500 species in the U.S. that are threatened or endangered with extinction," he said, "and about 95 percent of these species are threatened by habitat loss, and many of the same factors that actually caused the passenger pigeon to go extinct."

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, on the University of Washington campus in Seattle, has one of slightly more than 1,500 specimens of passenger pigeons left in the world. This Saturday through Monday, museum visitors can take part in Fold the Flock, a worldwide event to create at least 1 million origami paper replicas of the passenger pigeon.

Monday marks the date that the last bird, named "Martha" for Martha Washington, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

More information on the passenger pigeon is online at defendersblog.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA