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Category — Education

Passenger Pigeon: From Billions to One, Then None

Guest blogger: Sophie Williams, Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) student and consultant on the Passenger Pigeon Memorial renovation

Despite once numbering in the billions and traveling in flocks that blotted out the sun,  the entire passenger pigeon species was diminished to a single bird by the early 1900s. Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, and with her death, the passenger pigeon went extinct.

Once an inexhaustible resource, the passenger pigeon’s numbers were quickly reduced. A range of human actions—overhunting and commercial-scale harvesting of the birds, along with deforestation associated with advances in technology as rail and telegraph lines spread across the country—had an insurmountable impact on the species. Though few believed the passenger pigeon could ever be eliminated, by the dawn of the 20th century, only a handful of captive birds remained.

Nets like this one painted by James Pattison Cockburn in 1829 could capture hundreds of pigeons at once.

Nets, like this one painted by James Pattison Cockburn in 1829, could capture hundreds of pigeons at once.

Martha, the last of her kind, was one of these few, an aged bird who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo from 1902 until her death in 1914. During her time in Cincinnati, many attempts were made to breed Martha, including with two male passenger pigeons also housed at the Zoo. These breeding attempts failed, perhaps due to the gregarious nature of the passenger pigeon; they typically mated in huge breeding flocks. By 1910, each of the males had died. A reward of $1,000 was offered to anyone who could supply a mate for Martha, but none was found.

In the early 1900s, a concerted effort was made to protect the passenger pigeons that remained. Despite these breeding and protection efforts, it was simply too late to make a difference. Those who had been concerned about the fate of the passenger pigeon had not been heeded in time, and by the time it was obvious the species was to go extinct, it was too late to save it. The “thoughtlessness and insatiable greed of man” had driven one of the most abundant species on the planet to extinction  (Schorger, as cited in A Passing in Cincinnati, 1976).

In this year before the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction, the unimaginable loss of one of the most common bird species in the world weighs heavy on our minds. During this year, we recognize the importance of this story as an impetus for positive change in the world of wildlife conservation. In the years immediately following Martha’s death, great strides were made to protect species in the United States and beyond, and these efforts continue today.

We at the Zoo are proud of our place in the history of the passenger pigeon and mankind’s last efforts to save them, and recognize our responsibility to honor not only Martha’s memory, but also her role as a catalyst in the protection of other species. We look forward to a future in which we as humans are aware of our power, both for bad and for good, and are able to add more success stories of wildlife conservation to the ranks of the white-tailed deer and American bison. For more on these species conservation success stories, tune in next month!

American bison (Photo: Jack Dykinga)

American bison (Photo: Jack Dykinga)

To read the first two posts in this series, click here and here.

November 1, 2013   1 Comment

El Zoologico Experiencia (The Zoo Experience in a Zoo Academy Student’s Words)

Guest blogger: Zoo Academy student, Keri Cross

Hello everyone! My name is Keri Cross, and I am a Zoo Academy senior!!!!!! I started attending the Zoo Academy last year, and the experience has been absolutely AMAZING!!!!!! I have evolved a lot since I first started attending the Zoo Academy, and the journey has been very impactful for me. I have met so many nice people here at the Zoo, and the keepers are the funniest people I have ever been around. They are always in good high spirits, and they keep me wanting to come back and help them the best I can.

As far as picking which department is my favorite, I really don’t have a favorite area. Every area I have worked in has something great about it, and it makes it hard to pick which one would be my absolute favorite. I have picked up skills from each lab, which I carry throughout not only the future labs, but also in my personal life as well.

My favorite animal that I have worked with has actually been the screaming hairy armadillo. They are one of the cutest animals I have seen since I’ve been at the Zoo. Bonnie, which is one of the screaming hairy armadillos, is actually my favorite. She lets me pick her up and hold her. She has made working with the screaming hairy armadillos a real pleasure. The screaming hairy armadillos are used to educate the public about the species. The Zoo usually socializes them, so they are use to human contact, but they really wouldn’t make good pets in someone’s home. The reason is mainly because they are pretty messy, and they are wild animals. The screaming hairy armadillo usually lives in desert, grassland, scrubland, and forest areas. Their diet includes plants and tasty bugs. They have an excellent sense of smell, and they are amazing diggers, too. Usually when it’s very hot, the screaming hairy armadillos dig burrows, which measure up to several meters in length, so that they can be protected from those hot, sunny days. Surprisingly, in the winter, they are very active during the day. Want to know an interesting fact???? Baby armadillos are called “pups”. A female is called a “zed” and the male is a “lister”.

Bonnie, the screaming hairy armadillo

Bonnie, the screaming hairy armadillo

My favorite animal overall would have to be the cheetah. The cheetah is one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen. They have interesting patterns on their back, and they have big, beautiful brown eyes. Cheetahs usually come from the plains of Africa, wandering the savannas. Cheetahs are the fastest land animals on the planet!!!!!!!! With their extremely fast speed and good eyesight, they are able to spot their prey and immediately catch it. They are actually a species that is endangered right now. At this point, dedicated people are working hard to try to restore these beautiful creatures in the wild.

My favorite animal is the cheetah. (Photo: Dave Jenike)

My favorite animal is the cheetah. (Photo: Dave Jenike)

One experience from the Zoo so far that has been my absolute favorite has been actually being able to work with the reptiles. Reptiles are some of my absolute favorite animals, and I have been able to handle different types of reptiles. Crystal, a ball python, has actually been my favorite snake to handle. She comes from Africa. Her scientific name is Python regius, and she belongs to the python family. Ball pythons are also called royal pythons, and they are actually the calmest snakes that I have ever worked with.

Crystal, the ball python

Crystal, the ball python

Crystal is talking to me.

Crystal is talking to me.

With my experience so far this year, I’ve realized that this journey has been absolutely amazing. I take classes actually at the Zoo, which is pretty amazing, so I get to come to the Zoo every day, and work with the different types of animals. I’ve met a lot of great people who want to see me do great things in the future, especially with helping animals. My desire in life is to help animals, and I feel like I’m doing that every day I come to the different areas in the Zoo. My job right now may not be that much, but it all goes a long way in the end. I’m glad that I chose the Zoo Academy because I feel like I’m doing something that will stick with me forever. This experience will help lead me to bigger and better things in the future.

October 10, 2013   5 Comments

Passenger Pigeon: Imagine a Billion Birds Flying Overhead

Guest blogger: Sophie Williams, Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) student and consultant on the Passenger Pigeon Memorial renovation

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and perhaps the world. In 1800, North America was filled with more than five billion passenger pigeons. It is hard to imagine the scope of their flocks. In 1813, ornithologist and wildlife painter John J. Audubon calculated a single flock he observed in Kentucky to contain more than 1,115,000,000 birds! An authority on the passenger pigeon noted that the birds moved “in such enormous numbers as to confound the senses.” Many reports described flocks of the birds blotting out the sun.

Audubon marvels at a flock of passenger pigeons.

Audubon marvels at a flock of passenger pigeons.

It is difficult to fully understand what  it would be like to look up and see a flock of these birds flying overheard, to hear their billions of wings beating together, to feel the air moving over you from their flight. We may find the massive flock of starlings, called a murmuration, in this video unbelievable, but to imagine what a flock of passenger pigeons might be like, you would have to multiply the size of this murmuration by thousands!

The story of the passenger pigeon is a poignant example of nature’s abundance and humanity’s ability to exhaust seemingly endless riches. We also have the ability to save today’s imperiled species from suffering the same fate. The Cincinnati Zoo is part of an international effort called Project Passenger Pigeon, which will bring together scientists, conservationists, educators, and artists, musicians, and filmmakers to increase awareness of the passenger pigeon’s story and use it as an opportunity to engage people in current issues related to human-caused extinction, promote species conservation and habitat preservation, and motivate people to get involved in sustainable actions that promote biodiversity and deter future human-caused extinctions.

Those of you in the Cincinnati area  can experience a larger-than-life version of world-renowned wildlife painter John Ruthven’s latest painting titled Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon. Reproduced as a mural on the side of a building at 15 E. Eighth St. in downtown Cincinnati, it features a flock of passenger pigeons, led by Martha, in flight at the Zoo. The mural was dedicated on September 19. Forty years ago, John Ruthven captained an effort to create the Passenger Pigeon Memorial at our Zoo to honor the passing of the passenger pigeon and Martha. He is now collaborating with us to renovate the memorial in time for the 100th anniversary of Martha’s death.

A representation of John Ruthven's painting of Martha, the last passenger pigeon.

A representation of John Ruthven’s painting of Martha, the last passenger pigeon.

Tune in each month as we celebrate what’s working in wildlife conservation leading up to the commemoration of 100 years since Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

To read the first post in this series, click here.

October 1, 2013   2 Comments