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Contents tagged with extinction

  • Madison Vorva, Lending a Helping Hand in Nature's Struggle

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    Tags: Nature's Struggle, extinction, Endangered Species, orangutan, conservation, nature museum, palm oil

    Created: 9/11/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    Today’s post was contributed by Madison Vorva of Project ORANGS. Madison and her friend Rhiannon Tomitshen founded Project ORANGS in 2007 to raise awareness about the plight of the orangutan and the deforestation tactics used to source palm oil. The pair have been spotlighted in our “Nature’s Struggle: Survival & Extinction” exhibit for their work.

    My first trip to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum was in 2010 for Rishi Tea’s launch party with Dr. Jane Goodall. I was so excited to return to see the “Nature’s Struggle: Survival and Extinction” exhibit. The environmental problems our planet faces today are massive, with no “black and white” quick fix, but this exhibit does an excellent job of breaking down these complexities to kids. It is so important to empower young people to recognize that while nature is gravely threatened, we can each do something about it beginning with our everyday choices and unique passions.

    Madison Vorva in Nature's Struggle

    Today, I’m a 19-year-old sophomore at Pomona College, but I became an environmental activist when I was 11 years old. In 2007, I decided to earn my Girl Scout Bronze Award by raising awareness about the plight of the orangutan. I learned that their rainforest habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia is being rapidly deforested for palm oil plantations. In Indonesia, deforestation is responsible for 80% of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, making it the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind the United States and China. Today, palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, and this ingredient is in about 50% of the products in American grocery stores.

    After learning that palm oil was in Girl Scout cookies, my friend and I launched Project ORANGS to get Girl Scouts USA to use a deforestation-free source of palm oil. Partnering with Climate Advisers, the Rainforest Action Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists, I’ve organized the support of over 140,000 consumers and my hero, Dr. Jane Goodall, through online petitions and letter writing campaigns. Through interviews in The Wall Street Journal, TIME Magazine, NPR, CBS’s Early Show, and ABC World News, millions of consumers have been educated about the impacts of their daily purchases. Working with the Philadelphia Zoo, we designed a “Guardian of the Rainforest” badge which hundreds of Scouts have earned (and you can too!). In 2011, Girl Scouts USA announced a palm oil policy, the first policy change driven by the efforts of girls in the organization’s 100+ year history. In 2014, Kellogg’s, a Girl Scout Cookie baker, announced a deforestation-free palm oil policy for its entire product line.

    Palm oil free cookies interactive in Nature'S Struggle exhibit

    For any museum visitor inspired by “Nature’s Struggle”, check out Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program which supports young people making a difference for people, animals and the environment. No matter your age, never underestimate your ability to make our world more peaceful and just. As Dr. Jane says, “If you really want something, and really work hard, and take advantage of opportunities, and never give up, you will find a way.”

    Madison Vorva in Nature's Struggle exhibit

    Madison Vorva 

    Founder, Project ORANGS
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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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  • A Biologist's Point of View

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    Tags: squirrels, parks, hunting, extinction, human nature interaction, fox squirrels, grey squirrels, elk, bobwhite, settlers, Biology

    Created: 12/11/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    After reading yesterday's Gizmodo article titled "The Fascinating Story of why U.S. Parks are Full of Squirrels" by Adam Clark Estes, we had our Curator of Urban Ecology and resident squirrel expert (he runs projectsquirrel.org, a citizen science project) Steve Sullivan, write a response. The result is a historic and eye-opening look into the population of squirrels (and other game animals) from a biologists point of vew.

    This is a fun article as far as it goes. It neglects two important points though, one having to do with extirpation and the other with invasion.  

    Eastern grey squirrel
    Eastern grey squirrel

    Sure, we encouraged squirrels to live in parks. Wildlife of all kinds has potential to bring joy as we watch and interact with it. In fact, there is a claim (I’m still looking for the primary source) that Oak Park reintroduced fox squirrels by trapping some in Oklahoma. So why did we have to add squirrels to our parks and why did Oak Park have to import them from so far away? Over hunting and habitat destruction.

    As settlers spread they relied on wild game to supply much of their food. Since we need to eat all year, people were hunting and trapping all year. Bison, deer, and turkey are the ones we often think of in this context but in fact beaver, bear, bobolink, lark, curlew, duck, prairie chicken, and even squirrel were also on the menu. In fact, small animals like squirrel and many birds were likely on the menu more often than the larger species. Remember, prior to the present era, people ate far less meat than we do today and two or three bobolink were more than enough meat for a meal; a squirrel could feed four people.  Nevertheless, relentless hunting reduced populations of these species significantly. Many that were once common disappeared from many states, some became extinct. Only a few decades ago, it was uncommon to see a deer and unheard of to see a turkey. Bison are found almost exclusively in preserves and elk are rare outside of them. Bobolink, duck and lark populations are tiny compared to pre-settlement times. Eskimo curlew are extinct (we ate them all) as are passenger pigeons, a species that was once one in four birds on our continent. During this time, squirrels diminished greatly, too. 

    Bull Elk
    Bull Elk, photo by Flickr user Amada44

    Thankfully, uncontrolled hunting (in the US) has been largely solved. Hunting seasons, animal censuses, and hunter success reports ensure that our favorite game animals are almost all doing very well. So well, in fact, that many species have become pests in places where hunting is limited. 

    While we may have a good handle on over hunting, habitat loss is another issue altogether. One game species that is not doing so well is the bobwhite quail. This once seemingly ubiquitous species is seldom seen in many places where it once was about the only thing worth hunting.  It is declining for a number of factors, most notably habitat loss. As farms are consolidated, fencerows are eliminated. These fencerows once provided shelter from the wind and rain for a wide variety of species.  Without them, the landscape becomes little more than a biological desert of corn and soy fields.  Almost nothing lives in these places, especially not game animals. 

    Bobwhite
    Bobwhite, photo by Steve Maslowski/USFWS

    Thankfully for squirrels, the parks we create are often hospitable environments. When we make parks, we typically eliminate most of the natural biodiversity. Notably, we eradicate predators to the best of our ability, and we plant as many trees as we can. Both of these cases greatly benefit squirrels. As the article correctly points out, it is sometimes necessary to install nestboxes because we also remove large hollow trees just as they become naturally good homes for squirrels. Not all species respond well to such simple manipulations though. Think how hard it is to get a bat box populated.

    And so, these days, after killing off most of the squirrels near us and destroying their habitats, we have created parks where they can live and, in many cases (but certainly not all), we have intentionally reintroduced them as a mobile part of the natural beauty we maintain in our cities. 

    Fox squirrel
    Fox squirrel

    Invasion is another story. The grey and fox squirrels that many of us are so familiar with are native to the eastern half of our continent. There are other tree squirrel species that evolved in the more diverse western ecosystems. However, as we settled the west, we brought our squirrels with us. The native species were sometimes shy, occurred in low numbers, or were too greasy; they were hard to hunt and not much good for food. So, we introduced the greys and foxes into these new ecosystems and, much as they took to the artificial habitats of parks, they also prospered in western habitats. 

    Eastern grey squirrel
    Eastern grey squirrel

    Today, Eastern grey squirrels (Sciururs carolinensis) are invading the habitat of Western greys (S. griseus) and eliminating them. Project Squirrel participants may also be documenting a new invasion of fox squirrels in Colorado where they compete with Abert’s squirrel. Fox squirrels are also well-established in the Los Angeles region and are a major pest in some nut farms. Both grey and fox squirrels can also cause major damage to natural forests as they eat and scatter nuts and remove bark from trees. Over time, we expect them to change the look and feel (and thus the resident animal populations too) of some western forests. These same problems are being experienced in England and Italy where our grey squirrel has been introduced.

    So, while it is enjoyable to watch squirrels in eastern parks, those that you see in western parks are often an indication of significant ecological problems brought about by people moving squirrels around.



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