The Artdog Image of Interest: Image 4 of a series of four by John James Audubon

Passenger Pigeon (Columba Migratoria), 1838, by John James AudubonNote the scientific name is now Ectopistes migratorius.

The demise of the Passenger Pigeon is one of the most extensively-documented extinctions I’ve ever seen. All three of the other bird species I’ve highlighted in this series are carefully listed as “Extinct or Critically Endangered.”

Not the Passenger Pigeon. We know to the day–and possibly to the hour–when the last Passenger Pigeon, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo (September 1, 1914, reportedly at 1 p.m.).

Only a few decades earlier, Passenger Pigeons had numbered in the billions, if not trillions. The species was hunted commercially along the train lines, and helped to feed both the masses of low-income immigrants flooding into American cities in the East, and to leave its mark on American haut cuisine, as well.

In their heyday, Passenger Pigeons would swoop into an area not unlike a locust swarm, darkening the sky. They would decimate the local crops, and cover everything with their excrement, according to contemporary reports. They also reportedly were incredibly noisy birds, with the sounds of their flocks described in various ways, but the bottom line was always “deafening.”

When flocks were gargantuan, it was hard to miss. By the time their numbers had begun to diminish, commercial hunting had become so entrenched there was little effort to slow the slaughter (kind of reminds me of commercial overfishing today). Perhaps there was another aspect of human nature in the mix, as well:

Logic? Compassion? Thinking about consequences? What??

As with the Eskimo Curlew, which also were delicious and once migrated in large flocks that seemed inexhaustible at the time, Passenger Pigeons were brought down by more than commercial hunting alone–although that would have done the job soon enough. They also suffered habitat loss when blight and deforestation deprived them of their preferred chestnut trees, and–perhaps counter-intuitively, they didn’t reproduce as fast or abundantly as many flocking species. Their nesting colonies were massive, and not suitable for just any location.

If there is any bright spot in the sad history of the Passenger Pigeon, it is in the sobering effect the species’ loss–even in the face of their earlier billions–had on observers’ understanding that NO, even the vast resources of the “American Wilderness” were not infinite.

It may be hard to tell in this old photo, but that is a veritable mountain of bison skulls, piled up in a time when warm buffalo robes were in demand and herds were thought to be infinite (note there also was an undeniable and EXPLICIT element of genocide in the destruction of the American Bison, since it was a foundational staple of Plains Indian life).

The demise of the Passenger Pigeon is often linked to the rise in interest in conserving the American Bison (buffalo), another species that once had been hunted for sport and whose massive herds were once expected to be inexhaustible. These were among the first stirrings of what have evolved into the conservation movements of today.

Revive & Restore’s illustration of hoped-for “Gradations of Success” in the “De-Extinction” of the Passenger Pigeon. The bird images in this illustration are derived from artwork by Tim Hough.

There has recently arisen one more potential “bright spot.” More than 100 years after Martha the Last Passenger Pigeon died, there is a serious effort underway to use cellular engineering procedures to bring about the “de-extinction” of the species. The objective, which is described at length on the Revive & Restore website, is to recreate–by 2022–birds that are genetically so similar to the original Passenger Pigeon DNA (which has been sequenced several times) as to be biologically the same species, although derived from band-tailed pigeons.

The revival of the Passenger Pigeon? Wonders may never cease.

I apologize that a storm of circumstances prevented me from completing my “Audubon’s Believed-Extinct Species” series of Image of Interest posts in April, as originally planned–but I was determined to get this last one included. I hope you found it interesting!

IMAGES: Many thanks to The Audubon Society, for the photo of the John James Audubon painting; to the Smithsonian Channel and YouTube, for the video about Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon; to The Video Project and YouTube, for the trailer for the documenary From Billions to None; to Ars Technica and YouTube, for the video “How Gamers Killed Ultima Online’s Virtual Ecology,” to Gizmodo and Sarah Zhang for the photo of the mountain of bison skulls; and to Revive & Restore for the optimistic chart depicting their hoped-for “Gradations of Success.” We should make a note to check back with them in 2022!