Ode to a Legendary Bird

by Chris Eberly

It is a rare thing to know the exact moment a species becomes extinct. On September 1, 1914, such a dubious event occurred. The Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird America, and possibly the world, has ever known. As they migrated en masse up and down the eastern U.S., they darkened the skylines of New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. In 1860, one flock estimated at a billion birds was said to be 300 miles long; it took 14 hours, from sunup to sundown, for the flowing river in the sky to pass. However, they were mercilessly slaughtered by the tens of millions at breeding colonies in the North and at huge wintertime roosts in the South during the post-Civil War era. Passenger Pigeons were shipped by trainloads to dinner tables in homes and restaurants across the East to satisfy an insatiable demand. Market hunting relegated their population from biblical numbers at midcentury to tiny, aimless flocks in 1890. By around 1900 the few birds that remained were all in captivity. The last male died in 1910, leaving a lone female as a barren relic of past abundance. This last bird of her species—Martha—died in the Cincinnati Zoo 100 years ago.

PassengerPigeon1
Passenger Pigeon plate by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

As we celebrate this inglorious centennial, a phrase from the ABBA song “Waterloo” floods my brainwaves: “The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.” It seems that whenever humans discover bounty, it is doomed to become a thing of the past. The fate of cod fisheries in the late 1900s mirrors that of the Passenger Pigeon a century before. Pacific bluefin tuna, down 96% from their unfished numbers, may be next in line. Many more examples exist around the world, but the good news is that we can take action now and avoid repeating our historic mistakes. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative released The State of the Birds 2014 Report (www.stateofthebirds.org) this month—the most comprehensive review of long-term trend data for U.S. birds ever conducted. The report finds bird populations declining across several key habitats, includes a “watch list” of bird species in need of immediate conservation help, but also reveals that bird populations are recovering in areas where a strong conservation investment has been made,.

Wetlands are one of the habitats to benefit most from conservation. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act has helped protect and restore wetlands through public-private partnerships across the United States, thereby reversing declines in waterfowl populations. In addition, 98% of the funding derived from duck stamp sales goes directly to the purchase or lease of waterfowl habitat within the National Wildlife Refuge system. Coastal habitats are at continued risk from development and sea level rise, but populations of 50 bird species that winter along U.S. coasts have steadily risen from the baseline assessment in 1968 due to wise investments in coastal National Wildlife Refuges and National Seashores. Please join us at GCBO as we invest in partnerships that will write a positive history for birds around the Gulf.

Chris Eberly is Associate Director at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, 103 Hwy 332 West, Lake Jackson TX 77566.

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