National Endangered Species Day: Lest We Forget

passenger pigeon, extinction, national endangered species day
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.

Probably the most astonishing wildlife spectacle that ever occurred in American history was the migration of the passenger pigeon, a bird that resembled a larger, more colorful mourning dove, with a bluish back and a rosy breast. Now largely forgotten, the passenger pigeon was 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 (the world population for humans in 1850s was about 1.2 billion; today, 6.8 billion).

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. People looking up in astonishment at the passing flocks felt as if night had fallen. When night did come, flocks settling down in eastern forests filled every available branch. The birds would land on each other, stacking up two or three high and crushing to the ground trees up to 2 feet in diameter.

The passenger pigeon may have numbered 5 billion birds in North America, a population that seemed inexhaustible—which is why the species’ fate provides a lesson about the need for the protections of the federal Endangered Species Act, which is celebrated on National Endangered Species Day, created by the U.S. Senate and slated yearly for the third Friday in May (this year on the 20th).

Extinction Nevertheless

By 1900, to the further astonishment of those who had witnessed the vast flocks, the passenger 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 recorded sighting came from President Theodore Roosevelt, a flock he reported south of Charlottesville, Virginia, near his rural retreat, Pine Knot. None of those post-1900 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. A 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.

The Endangered Species Act

Of course, no Endangered Species Act existed in the time of the passenger pigeon, no legal measure sought to prevent the unnatural extinction of a species. Even a creature as numerous as the pigeon could vanish within a generation, unprotected down to the last bird. Other species suffered the same fate in much the same era: the sea mink and Labrador duck that lived in waters off New England; the heath hen of New England woods; the Carolina parakeet, a bright yellow bird with green markings that flew in large flocks across the Southeast, its call said to sound like the ringing of bells. These and other U.S. species vanished without any significant effort being made to save them. The mentality of the time was to kill such animals before they were all gone (even Theodore Roosevelt [1858-1919], in a practice typical of his time, hastened to shoot dwindling bison and elk because he feared they would vanish before he could kill one).

The Endangered Species Act represents a revolutionary approach in our relationship with wildlife. With passage of the act—first in 1966 and eventually an updated version in 1973 that, with amendments since, is the law still in effect—the United States determined that it would not act with the mindlessness inexorability of a glacier or a change in climate that wipes out species without thought. We would exert some sort of restraint on our activities to the greater good of wildlife and the natural community as well as of ourselves, given that protecting a species means protecting its habitat, which in turn helps protect lands and waters for human needs.

Some political and business interests seek to undermine the act, of course. Lately, Congress has even used legislation to supersede scientific conclusions reached under the law about the needs for wildlife protection. But with the support of NWF and its members, the law has succeeded in saving species—such as the Pacific gray whale, the bald eagle, the whooping crane, the black-footed ferret—that in another era might simply have disappeared under the footprint of humankind.

National Endangered Species Day

The plants and animals that the Endangered Species Act has protected—1,972 species compose the list today—stand as monuments to the law and to the enlightened thinking behind it. But the extinction of the passenger pigeon and other wildlife species also is a sort of monument, reminding us that without controls, the reckless avarice of humanity in the face of the natural world is likely to act without bounds. On National Endangered Species Day we should think as much about what the absence of the law and its protections would mean as about what the law has accomplished. The passenger pigeon, the spectacle it once presented us, and its loss also should be remembered on Endangered Species Day, because they remind us of the ever-present need to support the act if we are to protect our wildlife heritage.

It’s critical that conservation funding for endangered species is protected for the health of wildlife.

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