Passenger Pigeons, Bison and Global Warming

3 11/15/2010 // By Roger Di Silvestro

It was probably the most astonishing wildlife spectacle in all of American history—the migration of the passenger pigeon, a bird larger than the mourning dove, with a bluish back and a rosy breast—the most common bird on the continent in the early 1800s, accounting for about half of all North American birds. One flock that flew over Ontario held an estimated 3.7 billion pigeons.

Naturalist John Muir described such flocks “flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray.” When these birds passed over, flying several deep, they blocked out the sun. Settling down for the night in eastern forests, the pigeons crushed to the ground trees up to 2 feet in diameter, filling every available branch and landing on each other, stacking up two or three high. The passenger pigeon may have numbered 5 billion birds in North America, a population that seemed inexhaustible.

Extinction for the Passenger Pigeon

A scientist examines mounted passenger pigeons in a Chicago Museum in 1928, 14 years after the last of the species died in captivity in Cincinnati, Ohio. Library of Congress

A scientist examines mounted passenger pigeons in a Chicago Museum in 1928, 14 years after the last of the species died in captivity in Cincinnati, Ohio.

But by 1900 the pigeon was officially extinct in the wild, though scattered flocks were reported in the Northeast in the first decade of the 20th century. The last sighting came from President Theodore Roosevelt, a flock he reported south of Charlottesville, Virginia, near his rural retreat, Pine Knot. None of those sightings were verified.

It is hard to imagine how a bird so numerous managed to vanish, but there are clues. Slaughter of the birds was uncontrolled. A hunter could point a shotgun at a migrating flock and kill 70 birds with one blast, or put pots of burning sulfur in pigeon roosts and kill thousands in a single night. One shooting club used 50,000 pigeons in one week for targets. In 1878, hunters reportedly killed a billion pigeons from a single nesting site that was 40 miles long and 3 to 10 wide. Individual professional hunters could bag 5,000 daily. One family near Lake Erie killed 4,000 just for the feathers. Boxcars loaded with pigeons went to city meat markets, which in the 1800s commonly sold wild game. One dealer in New York City sold 18,000 in one day. Moreover, the axe destroyed most of the bird’s forest habitat, compounding the threat from uncontrolled hunting.

And so it went. A few nascent conservationists tried to win protection for the birds in the 1880s (one of them an uncle of Theodore Roosevelt), but the slaughter continued until March 24, 1900,  when a Pike County, Ohio, boy shot a passenger pigeon that proved to be the last of the species ever documented in the wild.

Saving Bison at Yellowstone

Meanwhile, the bison was facing similar doom. After the Civil War, bison swarmed the plains. Population estimates vary from perhaps 5 million to 50 million—in any event a lot of them. Stampeding herds would shake the earth; they could derail locomotives. By the 1880s, the bison was almost extinct in the wild. In the United States, maybe 25 to 50 survived the slaughter for meat, robes and sport and as a means to undermine Indian cultures based on bison hunting. All of the survivors lived in Yellowstone National Park, the species’ last U.S. refuge (a few also survived in Canada and in captivity). Today, about 400,000 live in the United States, on public lands such as Yellowstone and Wind Cave and on private lands and Indian reservations.

A bison takes a dust bath in Yellowstone National Park. By Betsy R. Strasser

A bison takes a dust bath in Yellowstone National Park. The dust pits that wallowing bison left behind can still be seen in parts of the West where bison have been long extinct.

Why did the bison—a massive migratory animal more likely to conflict with human development plans than was a pigeon—survive, while the bird in its billions vanished?
Support for the pigeon was weak. The bison, however, sequestered in Yellowstone, caught the attention of Americans as a vanishing piece of their nation’s history and as a potential game animal. Even so, the bison was nearly lost in the 1880s and 1890s. When Yellowstone was created as the world’s first national park, Congress neglected to provide punishments for those who entered the park to kill game for meat markets or to sell the heads as trophies (when the American buffalo was nearly extinct, mounted heads sold for as much as $500, far more than the $2 or $3 for which robes typically sold in the 1870s). Park administrators could arrest poachers, but without legislated punishments, the poachers could not be held.
Until one day—March 13, 1894—a soldier caught a poacher named Edgar Howell with five Yellowstone bison he had just shot and was skinning, planning to add their hides to six he already had on hand, accounting for perhaps 10 percent of the remaining herd. Howell was arrested but had to be freed almost immediately. When the conservation magazine Forest and Stream ran a story about the incident, people were outraged. Support for the bison and for the park was so ardent that in May Congress passed a law initiating stiff penalties for people damaging the park or its wildlife.

That measure alone didn’t save the bison, but it set the ball rolling. During ensuing decades park administrators and private citizens worked diligently to protect bison, and as years passed, the bison recovered. Meanwhile, the pigeon had no voice speaking for it as loudly as the American public spoke for the bison. The bison had the American Bison Society (Theodore Roosevelt was one of its founders) working in its behalf. There was no Passenger Pigeon Society. And now there are no passenger pigeons.

Wild Turkeys and American Parakeets

A similar tale could be told of the Carolina paroquet (or parakeet), a green and bright-yellow parrotlike bird of the U.S. Southeast that was said to have a call that sounded like chiming bells. It flew in flocks in southern woods, but as woods disappeared, so did the paroquet. No one was campaigning to save it. The wild turkey faced a similar fate, hunted almost to extinction in the days before game laws, but sport hunters wanted it saved and were a strong constituency. Programs starting in the 1930s to reintroduce wild birds to areas where they had been wiped out proved so successful that now the turkey is relatively common and occurs in states to which it is not even native.

The Global Warming Connection: Learning by Example

Which brings us to global warming and the moral of these tales. In facing the challenge of global warming, a human-caused threat to the planet as we know it, will we act as the early conservationists did in saving the bison, or will we, as was done with the passenger pigeons, merely reload our guns (in this case, our gasoline tanks and our coal-powered utility plants) and blast away?

In the next year we’ll be uniting our voices and resources once again to protect future generations from our society’s excesses and carnage—from the gluttonous use of fossil fuels and the environmental damage that acquiring and burning fossil fuels creates. Whether the planet at large—the grasslands and forests, the seas and streams—ends up like the bison or like the passenger pigeon will depend on the strength of those voices and the magnitude of those resources.

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