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Nation/World

June 19, 2014

How erasing billions of birds shocked us

WASHINGTON (AP) — It was the moment that humanity learned we had the awesome power to erase an entire species off the face of the Earth in the scientific equivalent of a blink of an eye: The passenger pigeon went from billions of birds to extinct before our very eyes.

It was one bird’s death after many. But a century ago, Martha, a red-eyed, gray and brown bird famous as the last surviving passenger pigeon, keeled over, marking an extinction that shook science and the public.

Now, a century later, Martha’s back, in a way. She is being taken out of the file cabinets of history in a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit this month, reminding the public of her death, and of other species that have gone extinct because of man. A new scientific study this week shows how pigeon populations fluctuated wildly, but how people ultimately killed off the species.

And some geneticists are even working on the longshot hope of reviving the passenger pigeon from leftover DNA in stuffed birds.

“Here was a bird like the robin that everybody knew and within a generation or two it was gone — and we were its cause, “ Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm said.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird species on Earth. In 1866 in Ontario, just one flock of billions of birds, 300 miles long and one mile wide, darkened the skies for 14 hours as they flew by overhead. Unlike the domesticated carrier pigeon used for messages, these were wild birds.

They were easy to catch because they stayed together. They were considered a poor man’s food; domestic workers complained about eating too much passenger pigeon.

“Nobody ever dreamed that a bird that common could be brought into extinction that quickly,” said University of Minnesota evolutionary biologist Bob Zink.

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