Next month, the New York State Museum will be presenting a lecture on the passenger pigeon. Jeremy Kirchman is no stranger to extinct birds, having done research on the Carolina parakeet, the (possibly extinct) Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and others.
The passenger pigeon, icon of extinction
September 28, 2014 : 1:00 P.M. – 2:00 P.M.
Description: One hundred years ago, on September 1st 1914, the world’s last Passenger Pigeon died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo marking the demise of a species that once numbered in the billion of birds. What were Passenger Pigeons, and what happened to cause their extinction? Please join Dr. Jeremy Kirchman, New York State Museum Curator of Birds, as he presents this lecture on the life and times of America’s “wild pigeon”.
Fold the Flock, a part of the Lost Bird Project, has created a free origami template so you can print out and fold your own paper passenger pigeon. They’re trying to get one million birds folded by the end of the year.
The Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia has many interesting things in its natural history collection, most still exhibited in their Victorian era display cabinets. But one thing they don’t have is a passenger pigeon. So they borrowed one from the nearby John Heinz at Tinicum National Wildlife Refuge. The mounted specimen will be on display at the Wagner until September 2014.
A recent study of bones from an early historic Iroquois site includes a comparison with the much earlier animal bones from the Lamoka Lake site as well as some interesting passenger pigeon finds.
Adam Watson and Stephen Cox Thomas studied animal bones from the early 18th century Townley-Read site in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. The Seneca who lived at the site may have hunted deer year-round. Deer hides, as well as furs from other animals, would have been traded with European colonists. The detailed taphonomic analysis also indicates that deer bones were likely processed to extract the fat-rich grease from the spongy portions of the bones. This is usually considered to be evidence of nutritional stress, but they make the case that processing for bone grease was “a planned accumulation of resources rather than an ad hoc response to seasonal food shortfalls.” (p. 115)
Also of interest is the identification of passenger pigeon bones from one feature at the site. Passenger pigeon, of course, tends to be present at prehistoric archaeological sites in the region with good bone preservation, but in this case, four of the bones are from immature pigeons, providing good evidence specifically for the procurement of squabs in the springtime.
A small number of American eel bones, in contrast, are more likely to indicate fishing in the fall, when eels are heading downstream to spawn.
As a whole, the assemblage has some interesting differences from both earlier and later archaeological sites in New York. The authors provide a detailed and well-researched analysis of the animal bones from this Iroquois site to make the point that “the evidence for economic resilience and stability at Townley-Read contradicts a narrative of pervasive and unimpeded decline, and reinforces the importance of continuing to build and test empirical models grounded in both local and regional archaeological and historical data.” (p. 115)
OK, that in itself is not news. But the new article by Chih-Ming Hung and colleagues has resulted in headlines like “Humans Aren’t Solely to Blame for Passenger Pigeon Extinction” (Discover Magazine!) and “Humans not solely to blame for passenger pigeon extinction” (ScienceMag!!). Oh, those are actually the same headline.
GrrlScientist over at the Guardian does much better with “Passenger pigeon extinction: it’s complicated” and provides a pretty good review of the paper, including this important quote: “Dr Hung, Professor Shaner and their colleagues were not looking to discount or disregard the pivotal role that people played in the extinction of this bird. Instead, they were seeking to understand how humans could have reduced this seemingly endless population from billions to none in such a short time period.”
What’s less reassuring is the next line: “Dr Hung, Professor Shaner and their colleagues propose that the passenger pigeon’s population was already in a natural nosedive phase simultaneously with human over-exploitation in the late 1800s, and it was the combination of these two pressures led to its sudden extinction.”
And she also unfortunately repeats the contradiction that European immigrants, while engaging in their own “uncontrolled hunting” of passenger pigeons somehow also managed to relieve hunting pressure by Native Americans.
Looks like the Pember Museum in Granville, New York has a lovely new exhibit on the passenger pigeon. The museum, located near the Vermont border, has two mounted passenger pigeons and a clutch of eggs (a third specimen is on loan to the Adirondack Museum).
A brief summary of known prehistoric records of Ectopistes in West Virginia has been posted in the Passenger Pigeon Archaeology section. There must be more sites out there with these bird bones – where are they?
Their appearance and disappearance is at very irregular and uncertain intervals
James E. DeKay on the “wild pigeon” in Zoology of New-York, or the New-York fauna; comprising detailed descriptions of all the animals hitherto observed within the state of new-york, with brief notices of those occasionally found near its borders, and accompanied by appropriate illustrations. Part II Birds. Carroll and Cook, Albany, NY. 1844, p. 197.
An earlier record of Europeans shooting passenger pigeons (“doves”) that Joel Greenberg found but was not able to get into his book:
A second voyage left France in 1564 under the command of Rene Laudonniere. At the mouth of the St. Johns River where Jacksonville now stands, he founded Fort Caroline on June 22. It, too, would fail, as the Spanish, aware of France’s intentions, sent a fleet about a year later to slaughter or imprison most of the inhabitants and destroy the structures. Laudonneire managed to escape, however, and wrote of his experiences. Sometime between January 25, 1565 and May 1565, there occurred the earliest instance of Europeans killing passenger pigeons that I know of:
“In the meantime, a great flock of doves came to us, unexpectedly and for a period of about seven weeks, so that every day we shot more than two hundred of them in the woods around our fort.” ( Rene Laudonniere, Three Voyages (translated, edited, and annotated by Charles E. Bennett), Gainesville: The University Presses of Florida (1975): 114.
The exact location of Fort Caroline has never been identified, although at least one archaeological attempt to find it is underway. Recently, some people have even claimed, apparently without showing much evidence, that it was actually in Georgia.