The Passenger Pigeon— ‘a cautionary tale’
By Dan Moran email@example.com | @NewsSunDanMoran October 17, 2013 5:06PM
Katherine Hamilton-Smith, director of cultural resources for the Lake County Forest Preserves, points to information on a timeline that shows the Passenger Pigeon population was still counted in the tens of millions only 20 years before the North American bird went into extinction.|Dan Moran/Sun-Times Media
Among the facts revealed by “The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” an exhibit running through Feb. 2 at the Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda:
The wild pigeon was once the most abundant bird on Earth, living in pre-settlement numbers estimated as high as five billion in what is now the central and eastern U.S.
The bird’s name does not refer to any ability to transport messages in the manner of homing pigeons — it comes from early French settlers in North America who dubbed it the “pigeon de passage” because of the distinctive flocks passing overhead.
After years of uncontrolled hunting that included commercial harvesting spurred by the railroads, French naturalist Benedict Henry Revoil predicted in 1847 that the species was headed toward extinction.
Early Lake County settlers reported the pigeons were living in flocks “that seemed like a dark cloud.” But by 1879, when the species was considered in danger, a local ornithologist recorded that smaller numbers could still be found in the woods along the Des Plaines River west of Lake Forest.
Nineteen years before the species went into extinction, the last Passenger Pigeon sighting in Lake County was recorded in August 1895 in Lake Forest.
The last living Passenger Pigeon, Martha, was born in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in 1885 and was originally part of a small flock. Attempts to find her a mate were unsuccessful, and she died of old age on Sept. 1, 1914.
Updated: November 19, 2013 6:14AM
It is the great American cautionary tale — how a native species that numbered in the billions was reduced to nothing but memories.
“The wild pigeons were so thick that they darkened the sky as they flew by,” a Wauconda School student wrote in 1918 about the Passenger Pigeon, an account that likely relied upon the stories passed down by grandparents who lived in Waukegan when it was known as Little Fort.
The student added information that hints at how those massive flocks disappeared: “The people knocked them down with poles. They (ate) only the breasts. They used to set traps for them also.”
By the time that account was written as part of a history project to celebrate the centennial of Illinois statehood, the Passenger Pigeon had been extinct for some four years. The last known representative of the species — a female named Martha — died at the Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914.
With the centennial of that regrettable chapter less than a year away, the Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda is featuring an educational exhibit called “The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” part of a widespread effort to raise awareness about the legacy of the bird’s demise and the lessons it passes down to the 21st century.
“You just have to dwell on the time involved — in about 20 years, they went from being in the millions to being gone,” said Katherine Hamilton-Smith, director of cultural resources for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, as she pointed to dates on a timeline displayed since Sept. 21 in the museum’s White Room Gallery.
She added that the forest preserve has been working with various agencies around the Chicago area on “Project Passenger Pigeon,” an educational initiative sponsored by the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum of the Chicago Academy of Sciences.
One of the goals, she said, is “to find ways to bring this extinction to the public’s attention” and prevent it from happening to another species like the bobolink, the Blanding’s turtle or the smooth green snake — all of which are seen in Lake County and face survival challenges.
“Almost a third of the exhibition is not about the extinction of the (pigeon) species,” she said, “but about what can be done and what is being done so we can learn from the experience of human activity causing the extinction of one of the most abundant species in the world in just a few decades.
“One of our big messages is that this isn’t a one-off — this happens and is happening now to other species, and it isn’t just the polar bear to whom it is also happening because of human activity,” Hamilton-Smith added. “It’s very localized. So we wanted the message to not be a negative one, (but) rather a cautionary tale that says, ‘This is what happened, and let’s learn that this is something that can happen to (a species) that people thought was inextinguishably abundant.”
As the dozen-plus informational panels attest, the Passenger Pigeon — a bird closer to the mourning doves seen today in Lake County than the homing variety so abundant on Chicago streets — was estimated to number between 3 to 4 billion on the North American continent when Christopher Columbus arrived.
Even in the late 1800s, estimates in Wisconsin had the pigeon’s population in the 100 million range, but a combination of commercial hunting and habitat loss whittled those numbers dramatically. In 1902, the last known wild pigeon was shot in Indiana, and the Cincinnati Zoo then failed in its efforts to maintain a captive flock.
Ty Kovach, who took the reins as the forest preserve’s executive director earlier this year, said he feels the exhibit is “one of those (where) you’ve got to take the time to read it from the beginning and go through it. I think it shows how fast something can happen.”
“Conservationists tried to bring some attention to what was happening with the Passenger Pigeon, and in spite of their efforts and their warnings, they couldn’t get an audience around it, and look what happened,” said Kovach, adding that when it comes to conservation, “people often think, ‘Somebody else is going to take care of it.’ That somebody else is us.”
“It really goes back to a question I that I always try to answer about ‘why are forest preserves important, why is nature important?’ And it’s because if you don’t grab it, nobody’s going to know what it was like. It’s really not about us, because we’ve seen it. It’s really about the future generations, because once it’s gone, like the Passenger Pigeon, you can’t get it back again.”