In 1800, the world’s human population had yet to hit one billion. However, in North America, it was estimated that there were between three and five billion passenger pigeons. Now extinct, the species is making its posthumous resurgence at museums around the country this year, including one in Ann Arbor.
September 1 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the death of the passenger pigeon Martha, the last known living member of her species. In remembrance of the event, the University’s Museum of Natural History is opening a new exhibit chronicling the life and demise of the species.
The exhibit will focus on the species’ presence and subsequent extinction, as well as its impact specifically in the state of Michigan. However, the ornithologists and environmentalists who pushed for its development also wanted to demonstrate a broader theme about the historically destructive tendencies of human behavior in North America.
Eugene Dillenburg, assistant director for exhibits at the Museum of Natural History, said the story of the bird could serve as a lesson — and a warning — of the potential for humans to drastically impact the environment around them.
Starting in the 1800s, settlers in the eastern United States began hunting the pigeons, primarily for their meat. While the birds had previously been hunted by Native Americans, the increased strain on the population from the settlers led to their rapid demise.
“It was an abundant and cheap source of protein,” Dillenburg said. “Free food from the sky — so in the space of about 40 years it was hunted to extinction.”
By about 1880, the pigeon, which by many accounts was the most abundant bird on the planet at the beginning of the century, was hunted to virtual extinction. The few living specimens were primarily confined to zoos and private sanctuaries as individuals began to realize the lasting impact of such hunting practices.
However, efforts to revitalize the population proved fruitless. Martha, who was believed to be the last living member of the species, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
Dillenburg compared the rapid extinction to “waking up one morning and finding that all the trees in Michigan were gone.”
“A lot of animals have gone extinct over time,” Dillenburg said. “What’s unique about the pigeon — other than going from the most numerous animal to extinction — is that we know the date. So often an animal becomes rarer and rarer and, at some point, people say, ‘We haven’t seen one in a while; it must have gone extinct.’ Here we know the exact date that the last one died.”
The exhibit features artistic panels by Art and Design alum Kaisa Ryding. She got involved with the project during her studies at the University and worked on the design over the course of several months.
“My experience with the project allowed me to truly understand the impact of human development on wildlife and the environment, and how important conservation of native wildlife is to local ecologies,” Ryding wrote in a statement. “Humans really did have a direct and harmful impact on the passenger pigeon, and did so out of ignorance of how much they could decimate its population.”
Though a small contingent of conservationists attempted to stop hunting efforts as the pigeon’s population began to drop, scientists now believe the abundance of the specices was key to its survival. Once its numbers began to fall, the birds may have been doomed to their inevitable demise.
“The passenger pigeons relied on their large populations so much that when their population was reduced to the thousands, they could not function as a flock, and very quickly died out after that,” Ryding wrote.
Despite this theory, some scientists are exploring radical new measures to resurrect the species dubbed “de-extinction” projects. Using genetic sequences acquired through samples taken from preserved passenger pigeon specimens, these researchers believe they can, over time, reintroduce the species to the wild.
However, the efforts may be too little, and much too late. Dillenburg expressed concerns that genetically engineered specimens would simply die out in the labs as did the last members of the species in the early 1900s.
“Even if you could perfect the technology and create a new passenger pigeon, the current environment — they just wouldn’t fit,” he said.
A Shadow Over the Earth: The Life and Death of the Passenger Pigeon will open this week on the fourth floor of the Museum of Natural History in the Ruthven Museums Building and is scheduled to run through January 2015.