The anniversary of an extinction – The Passenger Pigeon

Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)

Above is an example of a Passenger Pigeon that we hold in our collection but the Passenger Pigeon has a sad tale to tell. It used to be one of the most abundant birds on earth and when their populations were estimated in the early 1800’s there was thought to be anywhere between 3 to 5 billion individuals; on migration their flocks would fill the sky and it was truly a sight to behold. Because of their abundance they were seen as cheap food and were caught in their millions, plus there was mass deforestation of their habitat after Europeans arrived. Over 70 years their population slowly dwindled and then in the latter decades of the 1800’s their numbers crashed. The last Passenger Pigeon, called Martha, died in captivity in Cincinnati Zoo one hundred years ago in 1914. 

Being able to show examples of this bird helps illustrate extinction and can be a powerful education tool. Having a species that was so abundant become extinct purely from the actions of mankind provides an insight on how we can drastically affect our environment resulting in extreme consequences. This case study is also a good way of educating people about population dynamics. Some species survive in low densities and even when there are only a few left there is still a hope of conservation. The Passenger Pigeon needed large flocks because of how they migrated and interacted with one another, once their numbers dropped below a critical level, even though that level might have numbered in the hundreds of thousands, they soon died out.

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