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Requiem for a Species
This September 1st is the 100th anniversary of the death of the very last passenger pigeon. A species that people belieived could never go extinct but went from billions to zero in a few years.
On a fall day in 1813, Jean Jacques Audubon left Henderson Kentucky in route to Louisville. It was on this trip that he described a flock of passenger pigeons so large and vast that "the light of noon day was obscured as if by an eclipse".
Audubon estimated that in just three hours 1,115,136,000 pigeons passed overhead. The entire flock took three days to pass over. What is more staggering, is that a flock of 1 billion pigeons would consume the amount of nuts, seeds and berries which would fill a container 120 feet high with the length and width of two football fields-each day.
North America with its huge forests and fertile prairies was a very productive place. Unfortunately for future generations, preserving the long term natural productivity of the U.S. meant nothing to the Anglo Centric business culture.
Passenger Pigeons were killed by market hunters in every way possible. The lust for a few dollars more drove "pigeoners" to burn sulfur under roost trees, chop them down or even use explosives to blast the trees at night. Nestlings were killed in mass on the nesting grounds and shipped to the east coast for a few pennies per bird. It's documented that one "Pigeoner" shipped at least 3 million birds to market. In this grim business pig farmers even herded their pigs to the killing grounds so that the pigs could eat pigeon entrails left by the pigeon hunters.
A reporter for the Chicago Field magazine in 1889 noted that " Destroying the game meant that Indians became dependent upon the American government policies of food annuities". Thus, when a few conservation minded people ask for protection for passenger pigeons they were ignored by most of the state legislatures and federal government. Law makers of the time used the excuse that such a plentiful species could never go extinct while knowing that at the same time Indians were being pressured to give in to government repression.
This September 1st marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the very last passenger pigeon named Martha that died in the Cincinnati Zoological Park in 1914.
The billions of passenger pigeons along with the vast and extremely productive forests and prairies are now gone-but the relentless procession of economic self interest continues crushing one species after another.
There are those who are hopeful that passenger pigeon DNA can be used to clone and revive the species. But how does one clone 500,000 acres of prime hard wood forest for them to live in?
I have always hoped that Americans would have learned from what was probably the largest biological crime in history but as I watch our north coast and Sacramento River salmon and Native American culture getting perilously close to extinction, I am not so sure.
So here's to Martha the last of her kind-may she not have died in vain.