Anniversaries Observed: The Last Passenger Pigeon

Two big anniversaries important to the conservation community – and of interest to everyone concerned about the natural world we depend upon – have recently been observed: the 50-year anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act (September 3rd), and the 100th anniversary, on August 29th, of the death of the last known passenger pigeon in existence.

The Badger & the Whooping Crane wants to share a little bit about each of these events – the extinction of the passenger pigeon today, and the wilderness act signing tomorrow – and also offer links just loaded with additional interesting information; because you just might want more.

The Emblem of Her Species

“Her name was Martha.” And she was “almost certainly born in Wisconsin,” Dr. Stanley Temple begins in his reflection on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, published in the Wisconsin State Journal two weeks ago. Martha died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, a century ago, but would live on in memory – emblematic of the tragedy of over-killing a species to the point of its extinction.

Taxidermied specimen of a passenger pigeon in the Bird Gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts, available through Wikimedia Commons)

A taxidermist’s specimen of a passenger pigeon in the Bird Gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts, available through Wikimedia Commons)

The passenger pigeon, which numbered between 3 and 5 billion birds in the mid-nineteenth century, was killed – “ruthlessly over-harvested,” wrote Dr. Temple – to provide cheap meat for the burgeoning U.S. urban population. He continued: “The massive slaughters at the pigeons’ nesting colonies also interfered with their breeding. Killed on an industrial scale and prevented from reproducing, the passenger pigeon’s extinction was just a matter of time.”

Dr. Temple, who has been giving numerous talks about the passenger pigeon during the anniversary year of the species’ extinction, has the perfect resume for this mission. He is the University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, and he has a list of “areas of expertise,” and other achievements (which can be seen at the UW-Madison Experts Guide for News Media), that is as long as your arm, or likely longer.

This expertise includes (but is not limited to): “ornithology, wildlife ecology and management, endangered species, biodiversity, climate change, Aldo Leopold and his ideas on environmental ethics and environmental health.”

Dr. Temple’s knowledge of Aldo Leopold was almost certainly enhanced on the job; for 31 years he served as the Beers-Bascom Professor in Conservation in the Department of Wildlife Ecology at UW-Madison – the position pioneered by, and originally held, by Leopold himself. Since 1982, Dr. Temple has been the Science Advisor to the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, and he has been a Senior Fellow at ALF since retiring from academia in 2007.

Endangered Whooping Cranes Have Avoided a Similar Fate

In his recent Wisconsin State Journal column, Dr. Temple notes that following the extinction of the passenger pigeon, Wisconsin has been part of a movement  to “use the tragic loss as a catalyst for conservation.” Although he does not single out any of the state’s particular contributions to conservation, I’m quite sure he would agree that the state’s recent efforts to help reintroduce the whooping crane here is one very good example.

Whooping Cranes photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November 2013; the species has been close-to, but so far has escaped, the fate of the passenger pigeon.

Whooping Cranes photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November 2013; the species has been close-to, but so far has escaped, the fate of the passenger pigeon.

The species was so very close to following the passenger pigeon into extinction when, at times, in the 1940s and early 50s, no more than 21 individual birds could be counted in the wild, and only 2 in captivity. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists habitat loss, hunting, egg collection, and specimen collection as the major causes of the crane species’ near-extinction, and notes that Wisconsin’s “long tradition of environmental commitment and support. . .” increase the whooping crane species’ chances of success.

The Battles Against Extinction Continue

Dr. Temple has been involved in a number of successful battles against extinction beyond Wisconsin, in particular those to save the California condor, the peregrine falcon, and the Mauritius kestrel.

In spite of the successes he has helped to create and those he’s seen, Stanley Temple concludes his newspaper column on a worrisome note, citing the evidence of elephants, rhinos, tigers, codfish and tuna – all still the victims of an illegal or unregulated overkill.      “Sadly, we seem not to have fully learned the lesson of the passenger pigeon: that no matter how abundant a species may be, we have the dreadful ability to wipe it out for our purely selfish reasons.”

Perhaps reflecting on the story of the passenger pigeon, he suggests, will help us do better.

[A Badger & the Whooping Crane recommendation: If you don’t already know about Stanley Temple, I urge you to learn more about his fascinating life – from meeting Rachel Carson at age 10 on a bird hike, to his adult “brushes with controversy and international intrigue . . .”  That and so much more about a conservation career spent, almost literally, walking in Aldo Leopold’s footsteps – can be found in this UW-Madison News feature from 2011. I do recommend it.]

 

 

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