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Year of the Passenger Pigeon

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Tags: passenger pigeon, extinction, extant, bird, ornithology, passenger pigeon extinct, 1914, Cincinnati Zoo, conservation

Created: 8/27/2014      Updated: 8/25/2015

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September 1, 2014 marks 100 years since the extinction of the majestic passenger pigeon. Though much has changed over the last century, this extinction is still relevant today and should not be dismissed. Over the past year the Nature Museum, as well as many others, have worked to bring attention to this bird that once numbered in the billions. Below is a special guest blog from Joel Greenberg, Nature Museum researcher and author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction.

Passenger Pigeon Specimen

"Big Blue", passenger pigeon specimen residing at Millikin University, Illinois

The passenger pigeon was unlike any other bird in at least three important respects. It had a huge population, probably in the billions, but certainly the most abundant bird in North America if not the world. Second, it would aggregate in vast numbers that are difficult to imagine today: as just two examples, John James Audubon reported a flight that darkened the sky for three days. And as a segue to point three, a three-day movement of the species in Ontario in May of around 1860 likely exceeded two billion birds. Yet despite that abundance, it was extinct in the wild by 1902 and extinct everywhere on the afternoon of September 1, 1914 when the last of the species died in the Cincinnati Zoo. What happened to the bird? In the words of filmmaker David Mrazek, "we" happened to the bird, subjecting the species to unrelenting killing throughout the years.


I have been working on passenger pigeons since August 2009. I started with research for a book, and that expanded into a vision of using the 2014 anniversary of the pigeon's extinction as a teaching moment to tell people about the bird and to emphasize aspects of the story that are still critically relevant today. Other people had similar ideas. We had an opportunity to convene in one place when the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum hosted this important meeting in February 2011. There were folks from a range of disciplines and institutions including the Smithsonian, Cornell University, Wesleyan (CT), Michigan State University, University of Louisiana, Indiana State Museum, Philadelphia Academy of Sciences (now Drexel Institute), University of Wisconsin, and Illinois Natural History Survey. And out of that gathering emerged Project Passenger Pigeon.

We had big plans. The amazing thing is that even with little money raised for P3, many of those plans have been realized. The web site was a huge undertaking and required major help from web-site designer George Mrazek; Steve Sullivan and colleagues from Notebaert; and the Cincinnati Zoo. I traveled to cities like Lansing, Minneapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cambridge spreading the word (Steve Sullivan was a partner in many of these excursions.). A symphony about passenger pigeons that was performed once in the 1850s will be performed at least twice this year, once in Madison and once in New Haven. My book, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, was released in January 2014, the same day I appeared on the Dianne Rehm national radio show. It has been reviewed very favorably in a number of national publications. The very first public program was a reception held at Peggy Notebaert. (About 200 people were in attendance.) The documentary that David Mrazek and I worked on, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, was funded through a crowd sourcing effort spear-headed by David. The world premier was shown at Notebaert and over 150 people showed up. (The movie will be airing on WTTW at 10 pm on September 11.) In June, Notebaert opened their wonderful exhibit on extinction, Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction.

So this has been a long haul with lots of talks yet to come (by years end I will have given over 60 talks in 23 states and one province). The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has been an enthusiastic partner through it all. I really want to thank Deb, Marc, Steve, Doug, Rafael, Alvaro, and everyone else at the Notebaert who have contributed so much to making this centenary so effective as a teaching moment.

Joel Greenberg
Author and Nature Museum Researcher 

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