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Project Passenger Pigeon

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

2014 marks 100 years since the extinction of the passenger pigeon. It also marks the beginning of Project Passenger Pigeon—a year of events, exhibitions, and engagement to commemorate this anniversary and promote species conservation and habitat preservation. The Cincinnati Zoo is proud to be a part of this international effort, which brings 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 and motivate people to get involved in sustainable actions that promote biodiversity and deter future human-caused extinctions.

Project Passenger Pigeon Logo

Events will be taking place throughout the United States as part of Project Passenger Pigeon. Lectures and talks by scientists, researchers, and other experts on the passenger pigeon will be happening throughout the year, and educational exhibits will appear in many zoos, museums, and schools, including the renovation of our own Passenger Pigeon Memorial.

The arts will also play a significant role in engaging people in unique and meaningful ways with the story of the passenger pigeon, nature, and conservation. Project Passenger Pigeon will feature plays, poetry readings, and art installations around the country. A documentary film, From Billions to None, is also being created to illustrate the passenger pigeon’s history and impact.

Three new books on the passenger pigeon will be published this year. A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, by naturalist Joel Greenberg, is the first major work on the bird in 60 years. Check out the book review in the New Yorker, and Greenberg’s discussion of the book and the importance of the story of the passenger pigeon to conservation on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. A Research Associate at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago Academy of Sciences (and organizer of Project Passenger Pigeon), and The Field Museum, Greenberg will give lectures and hold book signings throughout the year, including a stop in Ohio.

A Feathered River Across the Sky book cover

At the Cincinnati Zoo, we will renovate the current Passenger Pigeon Memorial thanks to a generous grant from the Luther Charitable Foundation. We will also take part in a variety of events related to Project Passenger Pigeon. For example, be sure to join us for a very special Barrows Lecture Series speaker; on September 3, John Ruthven will talk about his connection to the passenger pigeon through art. He will receive the 2014 Cincinnati Zoo Wildlife Conservation Award.

John Ruthven painting a mural of his original work - Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon

John Ruthven painting a mural of his original work – Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon

We hope you will join us for some of the special events we have planned for this year – more details to come. In the meantime, we are moving forward with exciting new plans for our Passenger Pigeon Memorial renovation, which we can’t wait to share with you! This is shaping up to be a great year to recognize the efforts being made in wildlife conservation around the world.

To read the other posts in this series, click here. Join us next month as we highlight the Cincinnati Zoo’s efforts in species conservation and celebrate the work of others in our community and beyond.

January 10, 2014   No Comments

Passenger Pigeon: A Catalyst for Change

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

The loss of the passenger pigeon, such a robust and omnipresent species, was, and still is, a jarring loss to the world. Despite such a loss, however, there is hope to be found in this story. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction, we recognize the importance of this story as an impetus for positive change in the world of wildlife conservation. Many other species, like the American bison and white-tailed deer, have been close to extinction, but have been pulled back from the edge by very talented and dedicated scientists, conservationists, and citizens.

In the years immediately following Martha’s death, great strides were made to protect other species in the United States and beyond, and these efforts continue today. The loss of the passenger pigeon was such a startling and significant one—mere decades before, the ubiquitous bird swarmed in flocks of billions and billions overhead—that it spurred many people into action. This extinction served as catalyst for change, from which many other species since then have reaped the benefits.

At the end of the 1800s, while numbers of passenger pigeons were quickly shrinking, the American bison and white-tailed deer were also in trouble. By the early twentieth century, unregulated overhunting and habitat loss (two of the same issues that forced the passenger pigeon into extinction) greatly threatened populations of white-tailed deer. The American bison once roamed the American west in massive herds, but, like the passenger pigeon, rampant commercial hunting and loss of habitat forced the species close to extinction. By the early 1900s, there were perhaps only a few dozen bison in Yellowstone National Park.

Towering piles of American bison skulls, circa mid-1870s (Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)

Towering piles of American bison skulls, circa mid-1870s (Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)

Thankfully, the sad example of the passenger pigeon had shown the American public and lawmakers that a seemingly common species could completely die out in a short span of time without proper protections. People began to take actions to protect species like these. Influential people like President Theodore Roosevelt, naturalist John Muir, and industrialist Stephen Mather were instrumental in creating many of the national parks we know today and protecting large areas of land, as well as the wildlife within them.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park (Photo: Daniel Mayer)

Bison in Yellowstone National Park (Photo: Daniel Mayer)

Immediate action was taken in the conservation of the American bison. In 1894, federal legislation protecting bison was passed. Game preserves were soon established. In an effort that continues to this day, public and private conservation groups moved small groups of bison to protected areas, and breeding and protection programs have slowly increased the numbers of bison from a few dozen to a more than 500,000 today.

Though common now, the white-tailed deer was once in danger of extinction. (Photo: Scott Bauer)

Though common now, the white-tailed deer was once in danger of extinction. (Photo: Scott Bauer)

White-tailed deer, whose numbers dropped dangerously low by the 1930s, also benefited from new protective laws, restocking of small populations into protected areas, and restoration of habitat. Had these actions not been taken so promptly, urged on by the example of the passenger pigeon, both the bison and the deer would surely have gone extinct as well.

These wildlife conservation efforts, and those we see in action today, stem in a very real way from the loss of the passenger pigeon. This loss served as a wake-up call to many, forcing us to recognize our power to threaten, but also to protect, species. As the conservation efforts of the American bison and white-tailed deer showed, the things that sealed the fate of the passenger pigeon—rampant commercial overhunting and habitat loss—do not have to dictate the fate of other species. If we use the story of the passenger pigeon as a lesson in the power of mankind, we can prevent other species from going the way of the passenger pigeon and take action to protect other vulnerable species today.

 

To read the other posts in this series, click here. Stay tuned next month for more on Project Passenger Pigeon and the Cincinnati Zoo’s role in this important effort in species conservation and habitat preservation. 

December 9, 2013   No Comments

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