Thoughts on the Passenger Pigeon

Martha - the last passenger pigeon. Martha – the last passenger pigeon.

As we just passed the 100th anniversary of the death of the last known passenger pigeon, Martha – who died on Sept. 1, 1914, it gave me pause to think a bit more about passenger pigeons. One thing that has gnawed at me when researching passenger pigeons, when regarding the incredibly huge numbers of birds that made up passenger pigeon flocks, is just how could this number of birds be biologically sustainable!? The great number of birds is well-documented and is presented in detail in our exhibit “Going, Going, Gone?”, including quotes from witnesses who said the sky was blackened for days by flocks of passenger pigeons flying overhead and estimates of flocks numbering in the billions of individuals! This just doesn’t seem sustainable! How can the environment support this many birds? Why weren’t there more predators preying on the birds and helping to limit the population?

One theory is that the birds in the mid-19th Century were in a peak population in a long-term cycle of large booms and busts, similar to Snowshoe Hare and lemming population cycles. But another theory was suggested in a recent on-line article in National Geographic News by Carl Zimmer. He states that maybe the pigeon population exploded when Europeans drove the Native Americans out of the birds’ range. What do you think!? Read the article here. His also discusses the real possibility that we can bring the passenger pigeon back, by “de-extinction”. But should we!?


Posted September 3, 2014

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