Centennials are often happy events marking a century since a city was founded or celebrating the longevity of a farming family. But 2014 marks an unhappy milestone for wildlife — 100 years since the death of the last passenger pigeon in 1914. There may not be a starker reminder that our natural resources are not limitless.
That the passenger pigeon could be driven to extinction must have seemed impossible in the mid-19th century. Estimates are that there were 5 billion passenger pigeons — likely the most numerous bird species on the planet. Accounts of the pigeons would seem fictional if they weren't so well documented.
Their largest nesting ever recorded was in central Wisconsin in 1871. The nesting ground covered 850 square miles. Wisconsin farm boy and Sierra Club founder John Muir wrote that migrating flocks were so large that "they flowed from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long." Others frequently described these flocks as being so dense that they blackened the sky. One flock in 1866 in southern Ontario was a mile wide and 300 miles long and passed overhead for 14 hours.
Yet, within a half century, they were totally gone. The last passenger pigeon in the wild was shot by a boy with a BB gun in Ohio in 1900. Martha, a bird named after George Washington's wife, died in 1914, languishing alone in a cage at the Cincinnati zoo, the very last member of her species.
Two main reasons that the passenger pigeon was driven to extinction are habitat loss and hunting. Their numbers were somewhat diminished as European settlers cut down the forests that were an important source of food for the birds. But the major cause was overhunting.
Passenger pigeons had long been a plentiful and cheap source of food. Native Americans frequently ate the birds and stored their fat. On the frontier, the passenger pigeon was an important food, so much so that farmhands complained of the monotony of being fed passenger pigeon so often.
The birds were easily shot or netted, especially when nesting. Sometimes, dozens of the birds could be killed with a single shot.
There were warnings about the vulnerability of the species. For example, the Ohio Legislature considered a bill to protect the pigeons. With the lack of foresight on environmental issues that continues to characterize all too many politicians, an Ohio Senate committee concluded, "The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the north as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced."
As Earth Day approaches, I believe that the great lesson to be learned from the demise of the passenger pigeon is that our natural resources, while plentiful, are not unlimited. Our ability to abuse the environment exceeds the ability of the environment to absorb those abuses.
Unlike the settlers of the last century, we no longer have the excuse of ignorance. In his essay on the loss of the passenger pigeon, Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “We know now what was unknown to the preceding caravans of generations.”
We ignore the lesson of the passenger pigeon at our peril.
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as the vice president of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.