In yesterday's post (which despite its appearances was not edited by a poorly trained monkey) we talked about the Bald Eagle, a species that has traveled from the brink of extinction to the commonplace. Of course, not everyone was so lucky.
Let's talk about one of the species that once lived on the banks of the Potomac that will never be seen alive again, unless of course, we get that cloning thing up and running. It once existed in such numbers that they reportedly blocked the sun as they migrated overhead. The Passenger Pigeon was last seen in the wild around the turn of the last century and the last captive one, Martha, died on September 1st, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoological Park. Incidentally, Martha is here in DC in the U.S. National Bird Collection at the Smithsonian, although not on display.
So what happened? How did a species that was once the most common bird of North America end up collapsing so completely? Many theories have been advanced, and it was almost certainly a team effort. Deforestation reduced it's habitat and of course played a part. It's entirely possible that infectious disease, such as Newcastle Disease helped them along. But mostly, the Passenger Pigeon was hunted extensively to provide meat to slaves in the South, as well as cheap meat for poor people in urban areas.
But on a more fundamental level, the Pigeon's problem was that it was a blithering idiot, evolutionary speaking (that's a technical term, by the way). It survived in great numbers because it needed to survive in great numbers. On an individual level, it had no defenses. It simply hoped that there would be so many other Pigeons that predators would be so full they couldn't possibly eat all of them. When humans ramped up hunting in the 19th century, they managed to kill in numbers never before seen, so many that the population collapsed. By the time zoos and naturalists attempted to save the species, they discovered that they would need breeding pairs in the thousands to resurrect the numbers required. Unlike the Eagles we discussed yesterday, it was not possible to bring them back with just a handful of pairs. So once the balance beam tipped, there was no righting it. Despite the best efforts of institutions such as the Cincinnati Zoo, the Passenger Pigeon never made it back.
But since it went extinct in an era with a madness for cataloging and categorizing nature, the Passenger Pigeon is not entirely absent from Washington, DC. While you cannot see Martha herself, a Passenger Pigeon is on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. It's a little out of the way, but worth a look. Head down to the ground floor, where the gift shops and cafeteria are, and head to the Birds of DC exhibit. Now, it's entirely possible that you have been to the Natural History Museum and have not seen this exhibit. It's even possible that you are a professional, licensed Tour Guide and not seen this exhibit. But that would be a mistake. It's one of those quirky, dated little exhibits that get passed over for dinosaurs, elephants, and giant whales. Go downstairs and spend five minutes looking at the birds in their wonderful, antique wooden display cases. And as you go in, look to your left. Right there at the top, next to the also extinct Carolina Parakeet, is an actual Passenger Pigeon. And to think, you came all this way and almost missed it.