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.
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 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,
What factors exactly drove the passenger pigeons to extinction? In wildlife science 101 we were told in College that it was the basket hunting that finished them. But looking at it this reasoning, it is not a satisfactory answer at all.
Interesting post — Barry Yeoman had a great article out recently in Audubon on the passenger pigeon: https://www.audubonmagazine.org/articles/birds/why-passenger-pigeon-went-extinct . But your article about monuments going extinct is also a timely counterpoint to the viewpoint espoused by Emma Marris recently in Slate, where she argues that kids need hands-on “play areas” in national parks and forests in order to get them really invested in caring for the future of our national parks: https://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/05/kid_play_zones_in_parks_leave_no_trace_inhibits_fun_and_bonding_with_nature.html
Candice, thanks so much for sharing this. While I was researching the photographic U.S. Army archives of Alcatraz, we discovered a pigeon roosting shed once existed on the west side of the Island. The army used to send messages to what later became Sixth Army headquarters at the Presidio from the Post at Alcatraz via pigeons.
Conventional wisdom has it that we have reached the point of no return.
Is incredible the manner in which we have exterminated this beautiful bird. The “inhuman” habit and irrational of eat without hunger, “extending arm”, signals a next extinction.
I just finished reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and was astounded by how fast we are losing various species. The chapter on the loss of the coral reefs due to the change in ocean PH was frightening. Our food chain is a very delicate balance and it is being threatened. This book is a very well written look at how our world is changing and the scary consequences of ignoring the signs. The California Condor is one success story, but even the Brown Pelican, which was on its way back, is having a bad year. People need to wake up before it is too late. Correcting environmental change is like steering a battleship. We can begin to turn the helm, but it may be decades to see any real change.
Thank you for sharing. It seems like we don’t learn from the past and commit the same mistakes.
I’m glad someone can decipher his cryptic utterances. 🙂
This is a poignant piece. I was aware of the damage tourists can do to national parks (from seeing the reduced state of geysers and pools at Yellowstone), but I was not aware whole parks had been lost simply to the cumulative effects of tourists taking mementos.
You are so right on the Leaverite.