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How many is a lot? When you’re talking passenger pigeons, that question is more controversial than you might think.
I was fortunate to be able to participate in a discussion of passenger pigeon population numbers for the Outside/In podcast, which is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio. Author Charles Mann was also interviewed because his book, 1491, repeated an earlier claim that passenger pigeon remains are rarely found on archaeological sites and questioned whether passenger pigeons were truly abundant before the 1800s.
Listen to the episode, Tempest in a Teacup, at the Outside/In website, or wherever you normally get your podcasts.
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.
A new article to be published in PNAS combines aDNA research with ecological niche modeling and population studies to examine the causes of passenger pigeon extinction. You may think you already know why and how they went extinct, and yeah, you’re probably right. But it’s always good to get more genetic data on Ectopistes, and potentially the most interesting part of the study will be their work on population dynamics of passenger pigeons. A more detailed look at this paper is in the works.
The article, Drastic population fluctuations explain the rapid extinction of the passenger pigeon, is pay-per-view at the PNAS website.