Lessons from the Passenger Pigeon

By Penny Briscoe

The passenger pigeon officially became extinct on September 1, 1914.  A lonely pigeon named Martha at the Cincinnati Zoo died on that day and was the last of her kind. She now stands mounted in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., a symbol for humankind that it is possible for a species numbering in the billions to be wiped out in less than a century.

On April 28th at the monthly meeting of Audubon Society of Kalamazoo, Joel Greenberg will present the story of the passenger pigeon and lead a question/answer session that will touch on the many reasons for the disaster, what the human race has learned from that extinction, and how to best assist in prevention of these types of species eradications going forward. The presentation will begin at 7:30 p.m., and Joel will be available for interaction during the refreshment period prior to the meeting at People’s Church on 10th Street in Kalamazoo. A museum specimen Passenger Pigeon will be on display for viewing.

The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was a mourning dove-like native bird but the male of the species was beautifully colored–dark blue on the back, wings and head with a metallic iridescence at the sides of the throat that shone as various colors in the sunlight. Ultimately, the birds’ preferred nesting sites and food, acorns and beechnuts, became scarce when so many of the native trees disappeared, largely due to logging.  Simultaneously, people discovered that the bird, often thought of as a nuisance because of its great numbers, was good to eat and easy and “fun” to kill. The eradication, however, wasn’t purposeful, and people continue to marvel at the speed at which the bird disappeared when it was so prevalent. Flocks darkened the sky when they flew over and toppled large trees from the weight of so many birds roosting and nesting in them at one time.

Greenberg has been a naturalist for over 25 years and is currently a research associate with both the Chicago Academy of Sciences Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Chicago Field Museum. He has authored four books with natural history themes, his latest published in late 2013, “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.” He will have his books available for purchase and signing before and after the program.

In addition, Greenberg has co-produced with director David Mrazek the documentary “From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” available in the spring of 2014 and which has been submitted to PBS for availability as a televised showing. A resident of Chicago, Greenberg has JD and MA degrees from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.