This passenger pigeon egg is from the collection of James Bond, the real ornithologist and inspiration for the fictional spy. Bond worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and specialized in Caribbean birds. According to the label, the egg was collected in 1849 (not by Bond, who was born in 1900). It was later obtained by Jacques Perrin de Brichambaut and is now in the collection of the Muséum de Toulouse (Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de la ville de Toulouse) in France.
An eyewitness account of trapping passenger pigeons in New Jersey in the early 1800s is one of only two publications by the woman who founded one of the premier paleontological museums in America.
In 1927, a short communication was published in the journal The Condor that quoted a letter from John Thomas Waterhouse to his parents back in England. Waterhouse described how the New Jerseyans hunted passenger pigeons using nets and guns. Continue reading “Annie Alexander’s Contribution to Passenger Pigeon Research”
Mecca Cigarettes trading card from the early 1900s. “The young birds are very fat and their flesh is delicious.”
David L. Roberts, Ivan Jarić and Andrew R. Solow, attempt to test the hypothesis that passenger pigeon became functionally extinct, “defined as permanent reproductive failure prior to true extinction” (p. 3) before their actual extinction in the wild around 1902.
Martha, the last captive passenger pigeon, of course, survived until 1914, and you could say that the passenger pigeon truly became functionally extinct by 1910 when George, the last captive male pigeon died. Roberts and colleagues, however, are trying to test a hypothesis some researchers have raised in recent years, that wild passenger pigeons needed to gather in enormous flocks to reproduce successfully. According to this argument, once those great nestings were no longer possible because of overhunting and harassment at the nesting sites by humans, the passenger pigeon was doomed to extinction, even though many thousands of them were still alive.
Therefore, it’s interesting that, based on their statistical test, the authors conclude that the passenger pigeon actually was not functionally extinct. I’ll leave it to mathematicians to evaluate the actual statistical method, but a big question is whether the data they used in their study is robust enough to support that conclusion. That data is records of eggs and skins in museum collections across the world (obtained from the Ornis2 database) collected between 1825 and 1900, with most of the samples from roughly the 1860s to 1890s. Their sample consists of 213 skins and 44 eggs. For reasons that are not clear in the article, they further reduce their sample to specimens collected from 1890 onwards (the “observation period”). Their sample size? Twenty-seven skins and six eggs. Unaddressed is the issue of data quality. The museum specimens were not systematically collected and really can’t be considered a random sample representative of the wild population at the time. The data in Ornis2 also may not be complete; there is an egg collected in Minnesota in 1895 (see Greenberg), for example, that is not included in the six eggs from the 1890s used in their study.
It is important to develop new methods of studying extinction, and if this work does that, it will be valuable, but I caution against putting too much weight on the conclusion regarding the extinction of the passenger pigeons.
It’s just a passing simile, but reviewer Joe Hill compares video rental stores, ubiquitous just a decade or two ago, with passenger pigeon flocks in his review of the book Universal Harvester, a mystery of sorts by lead Mountain Goat John Darnielle.
Was the disappearance of video rental stores from the American landscape a sudden, overnight event, or were there clues that their demise was coming? That question played out on a smaller scale in the first episode of Starlee Kine’s first episode of the Mystery Show podcast, which itself now appears to be as extinct as the passenger pigeon. What is not extinct, however, is the video rental store. In fact, the largest video rental store is thriving, with 759 stores in the Midwestern U.S. and in Canada.
Just published and open access is a new article that demonstrates the value and potential of 3D scanning and printing for osteological identification of passenger pigeons and other extinct or rare animals.
Some zooarchaeologists have been producing 3D images of animal bones for a while now. This article describes the next step, the creation of actual physical replicas (which they dub “artifictions”, as opposed to artifacts) using 3D printers. The practical goal is to increase the reliable identification of animal species (especially rare or difficult to distinguish ones) in archaeological faunal assemblages, which now is dependent on the zooarchaeologist having ready access to a large and varied collection of actual animal skeletons. Why aren’t digital representations of bones enough?
because the scale of digital models is based on the size of the screen upon which they are viewed, making identifications by direct comparison difficult. Artifictions, however, can be scaled accurately and physically placed alongside actual skeletal elements to enable more direct visual comparison and identifica-tion of specimens, comparable to the use of a reference specimen from a comparative skeletal collection. Additionally, the 3D scanned models can be used for species identification based on selected point-to-point morphometric measurements. (p. 16)
For examples, the authors use the passenger pigeon and the harelip sucker, a freshwater fish that, like the passenger pigeon, went extinct near the beginning of the twentieth century.
While there are still some technical (and budgetary) limitations with the 3D printing process, they argue convincingly that “this is the only non-commercial approach that will make available physical representations of skeletal elements from extinct species for quick distribution to a large number of researchers.” (p. 19) Efforts are underway to make these models available for download. Next, somebody needs to buy me a 3D printer.
Manzano, Bruce L., Bernard K. Means, Christopher T. Begley, and Mariana Zechini
2015 Using Digital 3D Scanning to Create “Artifictions” of the Passenger Pigeon and Harelip Sucker, Two Extinct Species in Eastern North America: The Future Examines the Past. Ethnobiology Letters 6(2):15-24.
This mid-nineteenth century basket, on display as part of the passenger pigeon exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum, is on loan from the Schoolhouse Museum in Ridgewood, NJ. It is similar to a stool pigeon basket shown in French’s The Passenger Pigeon in Pennsylvania.
How old is the earliest passenger pigeon fossil? A single wing bone found at the Lee Creek Mine paleontological locality in North Carolina is 3.7 to 4.8 million years old, a time period known as the Early Pliocene. It is reasonable to ask whether a fossil that old is from the same species as the historically known passenger pigeon, and the paleontologists who identified it were cautious, officially labeling the humerus bone Ectopistes aff. migratorius, but also stating that “Apart from the slightly larger size, which probably would have been encompassed by variation in the recent species, the fossil shows no distinguishing differences from E. migratorius.” (Olson and Rasmussen 2001:300).
The thousands of other fossil bird bones found here were originally deposited in deep marine water and in fact most of the identified birds are ocean-going species like auks, shearwaters, and albatrosses. Land based birds (including the passenger pigeon) comprise a very small proportion of the assemblage (Olson and Rasmussen 2001).
Olson, Storrs L., and Pamela C. Rasmussen
2001 Miocene and Pliocene birds from the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology 90:233-365.
A controversial dam and reservoir planned for British Columbia, Canada, is expected to flood over 12,000 acres (5000 hectares) of land in the Peace River valley. The Peace River Valley is home to Charlie Lake Cave (also known as Tse’K’wa), where archaeologist Jonathan Driver identified what may be the northernmost passenger pigeon fossils ever found. Charlie Lake Cave is just north of 56° latitude on the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies. Passenger pigeon bones were found in a level dated between 9,000-8,100 years ago, as well as in younger deposits.
While this site is not directly threatened by the Site C dam, hundreds of other archaeological and paleontological sites will be flooded by the BC Hydro project. Local First Nation tribes and other residents are also opposed to the project.
For more information, see The Globe and Mail story.
For more on Charlie Lake Cave, including video interviews with Jon Driver, check out A Journey to a New Land, created by the Simon Fraser University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Driver, Jonathan C., and Keith A. Hobson
1992 A 10 500-year sequence of bird remains from the Southern Boreal Forest region of western Canada. Arctic 45(2):105-110.