John James Audubon once watched a flock of passenger pigeons pass overhead for three days and estimated that, at times, more than 300 million pigeons flew by him each hour. ©aldoleopoldnaturecenter.org

One hundred years ago this year, the last passenger pigeon on Earth died in the Cincinnati Zoo. A female named Martha, she has now become an icon for species extinction.

It’s hard to believe that the most abundant bird in the 19th century in North America—possibly in the world—could die out in a matter of decades, especially when flocks of passenger pigeons once darkened the sky for hours. Renowned Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote of them at the time that they were a “feathered tempest.”

Hunting pressures and environmental destruction are blamed for the demise of passenger pigeons. It’s a story we’ve heard over and over again with other species, such as elephants, rhinos and wolves. Surprisingly, however, it isn’t only members of the animal kingdom that have succumbed to our greed and lack of care for natural habitats. Forty-three years from the exact date of Martha’s death (September 1, 1914), we Americans lost a place because of our greed.

Passenger pigeons and our national parks have something in common; something we need to pay attention to before we lose even more.

Taking home even a stone from your travels can have consequences. ©John T. Andrews

Filching fossils

In 1871 in Wisconsin, where I live, it’s estimated that passenger pigeon nesting sites from 136 million breeding adults covered 850 square miles of the state’s sandy, oak barrens landscape. But unfortunately for them, the birds were tasty to us; and because they seemed to be so plentiful, we thought that no matter how many we took, there would always be more. We even disrupted their nesting grounds, harvesting the squabs.

That was a flaw in our thinking. By the mid 1890s, the wild flock numbered in the dozens rather than the hundreds of millions (or even billions). It seems that once we see something as everlasting, it signifies the beginning of its end.

A case in point is Fossil Cycad National Monument in South Dakota. Established in 1922 by President Warren G. Harding, the monument covered 320 acres in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was created to protect one of the world’s greatest concentrations of Cretaceous-period plant fossils, known commonly as cycads or scientifically as Bennettitales. Scientists believe that these cycads, which have unique branching features and reproductive systems, held important clues to the evolution of flowering plants.

Sadly, there was little oversight of the national monument. Instead of hiring dedicated staff, the park service asked local ranchers and the superintendent of nearby Wind Cave National Park to look after it. But Fossil Cycad National Monument didn’t even appear in the superintendent’s records until 1933—11 years after it was established. With no protection, the fossils started to disappear as ranchers, visitors and even paleontologists (some cycad specimens from the monument have been found in Yale University’s collections) lifted the ancient plants right out of the ground and carried them away. By the mid 1950s, there were so few cycads left to protect that Congress officially removed Fossil Cycad National Monument from the parks system on September 1, 1957.

A Wisconsin highway marker is dedicated to the state’s passenger pigeons. ©Wisconsin DOT

A living wind

This summer, an exhibit on Fossil Cycad National Monument is being planned. It will travel to places such as the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It is hoped that the show will inspire visitors to refrain from picking up and taking home natural mementos from their travels in national parks.

In 1947, Aldo Leopold wrote about passenger pigeons: “Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.” On Interstate 94, in a hilly area in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, there’s a highway marker at Rest Area 54 that honors the passenger pigeon. I often see it as I travel through the state.

I wonder if on September 1, 2014, we will have the loss of another animal, bird or place to mourn. I do know that I have changed my mind on picking up stones or rocks or wood from my wanderings in national parks and monuments. Have you?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy