Less than 200 years ago, passenger pigeons
were the No. 1 bird in North America, and possibly on Earth. They numbered around 5 billion at their peak, forming huge flocks that stretched up to a mile wide and 300 miles long. They could block the sun for days at a time as they thundered overhead.
"The pigeon was a biological storm," conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote. "He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life."
And then, within a few decades, it all came crashing down. One of the planet’s most successful birds went from billions to one, dwindling down to a final survivor named Martha
who lived her entire life in captivity. She was found dead in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo around 1 p.m. on Sept. 1, 1914, completing one of the fastest and most dramatic extinctions ever witnessed by humans.
We weren’t exactly bystanders, of course. People hunted passenger pigeons to extinction, based on the fallacy that nothing of such abundance could be wiped out by human hands. And now, as we reach the 100th anniversary of being proven wrong about that, Martha has become more than just the last of her species — she’s a symbolic reminder not to make the same mistakes again.
"It’s a powerful cautionary tale that no matter how abundant something is — it could be water, fuel or something alive — if we’re not good stewards we can lose it," says naturalist Joel Greenberg, author of "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction
,” which was published earlier this year. “And if something as abundant as the passenger pigeon can disappear in just a few decades, something rarer could disappear in an instant.”
More at the link.