Passenger pigeons are fascinating. They used to exist in the billions in the US, so numerous that they sometimes blackened the sky. But like so many species, they went extinct. What is remarkable, though, is that we think we know the exact date that this unfortunate event happened.
It was a hundred years ago, on September 1, 1914, that they went totally extinct when Martha, the last surviving one, was found dead in her cage at the Cincinnati zoo.
The passenger pigeon was once the most numerous bird in North America, perhaps in the world; it’s estimated that when the first European settlers arrived, at least one of every four birds on the continent was a passenger pigeon. The early colonists were awed by the vastness of the flocks, which contained hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of birds. As late as the eighteen-seventies, passenger pigeons still could be seen passing overhead in astonishing, sky-darkening numbers; then, over the course of just four decades, the species, Ectopistes migratorius, dwindled down to Martha and her companion, a male named George. Then it was just Martha. And then there were none.
What happened? It was a result of being relentlessly hunted and slaughtered
and the remarkable thing is that (Thanks to Aspect Sign for the correction.) not a single pigeon fossil has ever been found, showing how rarely fossilization occurs. When creationists repeatedly demand the production of links in the evolutionary chain, they reveal their ignorance of how rare fossilization is and how lucky we are to have the ones we have. The only reason we know the passenger pigeon existed at all and what they looked like is because of historical records and drawings and a stuffed Martha kept at the Smithsonian.
What enabled them to be slaughtered so efficiently was technology, specifically the arrival of wireless telegraphy that enabled word to be quickly spread to hunters about the location of the flocks of birds and trains to quickly take them there.
“The telegraph allowed word to go out: ‘The pigeons are here,'” says David Blockstein, a senior scientist at the National Council for Science and the Environment and a founder of Project Passenger Pigeon. Thousands of hunters would then jump on newly built trains to ride out to wherever the pigeons had settled and start slaughtering them.
The hunters weren’t just killing the birds to feed their families, however. Pigeons would be stuffed into barrels and loaded back onto the trains, which would deliver them to distant cities, where they’d be sold everywhere from open air markets to fine restaurants. “Technology enabled the market,” says Blockstein.
Scientists are trying to see if they can reverse engineer this and a few other extinct species and bring them back to life. It’s a long shot.