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  • Eulogy for the Passenger Pigeon

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    Tags: passenger pigeon, extinction, extant, bird, ornithology, passenger pigeon extinct, 1914, Cincinnati Zoo, conservation

    Created: 9/2/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    September 1st marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon. To mark this somber occasion, and to help prevent another such extinction from occurring, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology Steve Sullivan has written this eulogy for this beautiful bird.

    Imagine a bird shaped a bit like a mourning dove but much larger, with slate blue on its back, salmon pink on its breast, and an opalescent necklace of green and pink. This bird lived in flocks so large they would darken the sky, sometimes for three days, as they passed overhead. Their wing beats were strong enough to cool the air and loud enough to frighten horses. People could kill 1,200 of these birds before breakfast.

    Passenger Pigeon specimen

    This bird was the passenger pigeon. An endemic North American species—one found nowhere else. Larger than the carrier pigeon, also known as the homing or messenger pigeon, that domesticated bird brought by the earliest colonists of our continent. Though this non-native bird was also prized for its meat, the passenger pigeon was free for the taking and better tasting.

    Today, the non-native carrier pigeon loafs in the rafters of the subway and poops on statues in the park of cities around the world. The passenger pigeon, whose population was included billions of individuals, is gone. Extinct. We ate them all and left just a few skins to be studies in museum collections around the world.

    Today, we continue to consume. Everything we have ever touched and nearly everything we’ve ever even seen was grown from the earth or dug out of it. When we buy a product, a hole is created in the earth on our behalf. What will we fill that hole back up with? Something that can re-enter the ecological cycle and preserve choice and freedom and health for future generations? Or will we leave a dirty, toxic earth where one place looks essentially like every other place?

    The story of the PP continues today, from the once abundant monarch butterflies and little brown bats of American neighborhoods, to animals that live half a world away but are impacted by our purchasing decisions. Every time we eat palm oil, buy a new electronic gadget, or try to keep up with the Jones’s, our purchases contribute to resource extraction that can result in catastrophic extinctions like that predicted for wild gorillas and orangutans in the near future.

    Passenger Pigeon specimen

    I see three fundamental reasons to conserve biodiversity: utility, aesthetics, ethics. 

    Utility:  What good was the passenger pigeon? You and I can’t enjoy the kinds of meals that most of the country ate from time to time, from the earliest people to come to this continent til the late 1800’s. If your family line goes back more than 3 or 4 generations in the US, your ancestors probably ate passenger pigeon. But you cannot. We can’t use the bird’s down and feathers. For those who enjoy hunting, they can’t have the challenge of pursuing this bird that could fly 60 miles per hour. We have lost the ecological functions of the birds as food to other animals (from the peregrine falcon to the endearing American burying beetle), their function as seed dispersers for some of our favorite hardwoods like beech, and their function as competitors with animals like mice. The absence of passenger pigeons allows mice to thrive in unprecedented numbers, providing homes for more ticks than ever, and putting you at greater risk for acquiring Lyme disease as you hike or even just work in your garden. 

    Aesthetics:  Beauty is subjective, but most would agree that the individual bird is pleasing to look at, their flocks awe-inspiring, and their effects on generations of forests gratifying.

    Ethics:  Who are we, a bipedal, binocular, megacephalic, sparsely-furred primate, to say, “You’re useless, you’re ugly, you deserve to die!”?

    Perhaps none of us really feel any different as a result of the loss of the passenger pigeon, yet our life experience is different than it could have been. Maybe the passenger pigeon is not really an “important” species to ensure the survival of humans. But which one is? How do we know? When will we know? Certainly the great web of life that we, as a species, rely on has key players. Will our human activities unravel the web too much?

    I hope this tragic centenary will stimulate people to live more sustainably. Reduce your consumption to the minimum. Recycle to the maximum. Don’t worry about how much your neighbors have; set an example of how much one can live without. Do you need a new cell phone every time the contract is up? Do you need a new car, or boat, or tv, or pool, etc., just because your neighbors bought one or your kids bug you for one? Skip processed food, turn off lights, car pool. You’ve heard lots of options. Take the time during this centenary year to find ways that work for you to reduce your impact on the earth and help others to do the same. Make the loss of the passenger pigeon have some redemptive value in your own life.

    Visit PassengerPigeon.org for ideas and more information on this remarkable species.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

    Passenger Pigeon feather

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  • Year of the Passenger Pigeon

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    Tags: passenger pigeon, extinction, extant, bird, ornithology, passenger pigeon extinct, 1914, Cincinnati Zoo, conservation

    Created: 8/27/2014      Updated: 8/25/2015

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    September 1, 2014 marks 100 years since the extinction of the majestic passenger pigeon. Though much has changed over the last century, this extinction is still relevant today and should not be dismissed. Over the past year the Nature Museum, as well as many others, have worked to bring attention to this bird that once numbered in the billions. Below is a special guest blog from Joel Greenberg, Nature Museum researcher and author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction.

    Passenger Pigeon Specimen

    "Big Blue", passenger pigeon specimen residing at Millikin University, Illinois

    The passenger pigeon was unlike any other bird in at least three important respects. It had a huge population, probably in the billions, but certainly the most abundant bird in North America if not the world. Second, it would aggregate in vast numbers that are difficult to imagine today: as just two examples, John James Audubon reported a flight that darkened the sky for three days. And as a segue to point three, a three-day movement of the species in Ontario in May of around 1860 likely exceeded two billion birds. Yet despite that abundance, it was extinct in the wild by 1902 and extinct everywhere on the afternoon of September 1, 1914 when the last of the species died in the Cincinnati Zoo. What happened to the bird? In the words of filmmaker David Mrazek, "we" happened to the bird, subjecting the species to unrelenting killing throughout the years.


    I have been working on passenger pigeons since August 2009. I started with research for a book, and that expanded into a vision of using the 2014 anniversary of the pigeon's extinction as a teaching moment to tell people about the bird and to emphasize aspects of the story that are still critically relevant today. Other people had similar ideas. We had an opportunity to convene in one place when the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum hosted this important meeting in February 2011. There were folks from a range of disciplines and institutions including the Smithsonian, Cornell University, Wesleyan (CT), Michigan State University, University of Louisiana, Indiana State Museum, Philadelphia Academy of Sciences (now Drexel Institute), University of Wisconsin, and Illinois Natural History Survey. And out of that gathering emerged Project Passenger Pigeon.

    We had big plans. The amazing thing is that even with little money raised for P3, many of those plans have been realized. The web site was a huge undertaking and required major help from web-site designer George Mrazek; Steve Sullivan and colleagues from Notebaert; and the Cincinnati Zoo. I traveled to cities like Lansing, Minneapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cambridge spreading the word (Steve Sullivan was a partner in many of these excursions.). A symphony about passenger pigeons that was performed once in the 1850s will be performed at least twice this year, once in Madison and once in New Haven. My book, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, was released in January 2014, the same day I appeared on the Dianne Rehm national radio show. It has been reviewed very favorably in a number of national publications. The very first public program was a reception held at Peggy Notebaert. (About 200 people were in attendance.) The documentary that David Mrazek and I worked on, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, was funded through a crowd sourcing effort spear-headed by David. The world premier was shown at Notebaert and over 150 people showed up. (The movie will be airing on WTTW at 10 pm on September 11.) In June, Notebaert opened their wonderful exhibit on extinction, Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction.

    So this has been a long haul with lots of talks yet to come (by years end I will have given over 60 talks in 23 states and one province). The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has been an enthusiastic partner through it all. I really want to thank Deb, Marc, Steve, Doug, Rafael, Alvaro, and everyone else at the Notebaert who have contributed so much to making this centenary so effective as a teaching moment.

    Joel Greenberg
    Author and Nature Museum Researcher 

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  • Bird Collections -- Looking Up Close

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, ornithology, bird, specimen, exhibit

    Created: 7/27/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Bird watching is a popular activity and one where there are few barriers to participation. Both young and old can participate and from any geographic location; you can watch birds in your backyard through kitchen windows or venture out to more wild areas. With this ready access to living birds, what role do bird collections play?

    One of the greatest advantages is that specimens allow for up close inspection, for as long as desired. This can be particularly helpful when you want to study a species that is difficult to find in its habitat, when you’re just learning how to identify a species, or when you want to compare features from different individuals.

    Eastern bluebird study skin

    An Eastern bluebird study skin, Sialia sialis, collected from Diamond Lake, Illinois in 1904.

    Bird collections are used for all sorts of research. For instance, museum oology collections were used to identify the effects of DDT on bird egg shells, which lead to banning the use of this hazardous substance.  Specimens are used to track changes in a species’ range – check out the range maps the next time you open an identification book; data from museum collections are often used in the creation of these maps.

    Northern Shoveller nest and egg specimens

    Here is a nest and egg set of a Northern Shoveller, Anas clypeata.

    Specimens that are taxidermied in a behavioral posture are utilized frequently for exhibits. These specimens help illustrate behavior and bring them to visitors who may not have the opportunity to see them first hand in the wild.  In order to successfully convey the true nature of an animal, taxidermists need an understanding of how musculature works, but also have an understanding of the animal. Extensive observation of living animals aides in the understanding of a particular species’ behavior, how an animal moves and balances as its walks, and how it interacts with other animals.

    Gambel’s quail mounted specimen

    Gambel’s quail, Callipepla gambelii, mounted specimen.

    The next time you visit the Nature Museum, take a little extra time to study the specimens on display. Note their particular features – the shape of their beaks, the differences in the shape of their feet, the coloration of their feathers.  What can you impart from these features about their diet or their activities? Through this observation, you may gain a more thorough understanding of the animals living in this urban nature environment and even spot them more easily in their natural habitat.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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