DNA Study of Birds, Extinction, and Demography

This paper by Smith, Gehara, and Harvey was released earlier this year (currently behind a paywall): The demography of extinction in eastern North American birds. Supplementary material can be viewed here. The DNA study included passenger pigeon and four other extinct bird species.

From the abstract:

We found extinct species harboured lower genetic diversity and effective population sizes than extant species, but both extinct and non-extinct birds had similar demographic histories of population expansion. These demographic patterns are consistent with population size changes associated with glacial–interglacial cycles. The lack of support for overall population declines during the Pleistocene corroborates the view that, although species that went extinct may have been vulnerable due to low diversity or small population size, their disappearance was driven by human activities in the Anthropocene.

Reference: Smith BT, Gehara M, Harvey MG. 2021 The demography of extinction in eastern North American birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences Vol. 288, Issue 1944: 20201945.

The California Condor Genome

An interesting article on the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), which faced extinction but has so far survived. Analysis of its genome implies a relatively large population about 1 million years ago followed by a decline in population around 10,000 years ago (or very roughly, the end of the Pleistocene). Note that the techniques used do not allow an estimation of recent (less than 10,000 years) population history.

For a species that was briefly extinct in the wild, the California condor has unexpectedly high genome-wide diversity

p. 5

our results show that the turkey vulture was historically less abundant than the California condor, though it is the most abundant and wide-ranging New World vulture today.

p. 6

Though the history of the California condor shows evidence of past decline, it retains a high degree of ancestral variation and, perhaps, the potential for future adaptation. As exemplified by the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), high genetic diversity is by no means a barrier to extinction, but the variation present in the California condor is nonetheless reassuring. The species continues to repro- duce naturally and expand its range in the wild

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Robinson et al., Genome-wide diversity in the California condor tracks its prehistoric abundance and decline, Current Biology (2021), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.04.035

Featured image: Don Graham, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Massive and Free Archaeology Book on the Onondaga Iroquois

The New York State Museum has just published James W. Bradley’s new book, Onondaga and Empire; An Iroquoian People in an Imperial Era. The book is available to freely download from the museum. At over 800 pages, it is a truly massive work and focuses on the Onondaga Iroquois and their interactions with Europeans over a fifty-year time span (c. A.D. 1650-1701).

Link to download: Onondaga and Empire

Featured image: Figure 7.16. from Onondaga and Empire depicts shell pendants and effigy figures from Indian Hill.

The Passenger Pigeon Memorial at the Cincinnati Zoo

Detail of wood door at passenger pigeon memorial, Cincinnati Zoo. Source: TCM

If you know anything about passenger pigeons, you know the last passenger pigeon was named Martha. She died 106 years ago today, on September 1st, 1914.

In 1977 the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha lived and died, created a memorial to the extinct passenger pigeon in one of the few surviving original animal houses. The photo above shows part of the large wooden door covered with carvings of passenger pigeons at the entrance.

The pagoda-style building was built as an aviary to display many types of birds. It and two other animal houses that also date back to the zoo’s opening in 1875 have been designated a National Historic Landmark.

The aviary buildings in 1878. Source: Cincinnativiews.net.

The creation of the memorial was due in large part to the efforts of Richard Fluke who, as a child, frequently visited Martha at the zoo.

“The world lost a great bird,” said Fluke, his voice still emotional at the memory, even after 74 years. “She was just magnificent. When [she died], I felt that I had lost a pal, because I always went around to see her.” Perhaps this is the greatest value of Richard Fluke’s testimony. Others mourned Martha’s loss — and still mourn it — in the abstract, as the point final in the tragic history of a species wasted through human greed. But the little boy who sat in the yellow pagoda, talking to her, stroking her feathers, feeding her tiny bits of food, mourned the passing of his friend.

T. F. Pawlick, Martha: The Last of Her Kind. 2018
Passenger pigeons inside the memorial at the Cincinnati Zoo. Source: TCM

New Jersey’s State Bird

In association with the Fine Feathered Friends exhibit, here’s history behind how the Eastern Goldfinch became New Jersey’s official state bird.

Anthony Kuser, who is introduced late in the video, was also a sponsor of the search for a surviving passenger pigeon. In 1909, he offered a $300 reward for proof of an undisturbed passenger pigeon nest. The ensuing search was unsuccessful (many sightings of presumed passenger pigeons turned out to be mourning doves) but the reward, and the publicity surrounding it, helped establish with certainty the extinction of passenger pigeons in the wild.

Passenger Pigeons on New Hampshire Public Radio

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.

“Doctorates are so weird”

Smithsonian Open Access Program: Martha

Passenger Pigeon mount
Martha the Passenger Pigeon. Source: Smithsonian Institution, CC 0.

To celebrate the Smithsonian Institution’s formal announcement of its Open Access program, which makes almost 3 million digital images and 3-D models freely available, here’s one of Martha (a.k.a. USNM 223979), the last passenger pigeon. Viewed from this angle, she has a bit of an attitude.

Extinct Birds in Ceramic

The New Jersey State Museum‘s Fine Feathered Friends exhibit combines mounted birds from the natural history collection with ceramic birds from the fine arts collection. Two extinct birds, the Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) and the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), are immortalized by the Stangl Pottery Company/Fulper Pottery Company of New Jersey.

Taxidermied and ceramic birds
Taxidermied Carolina parakeet, ceramic passenger pigeon, and ceramic Carolina parakeet gaze at a life display of two passenger pigeons on a nest. Source: TCM
taxidermied and ceramic Carolina parakeets
Taxidermied and ceramic Carolina parakeets. Source: TCM
Passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet created by the Stangl/Fulper Ceramic company of New Jersey. Source: TCM
Carolina parakeet
Carolina parakeet. Source: TCM

Another Passenger Pigeon in England

There are two passenger pigeons at Horniman Museum in London. This one is in Birmingham. Even better, the Birmingham Museums have made the image freely available in their Digital Image Resource.

Passenger Pigeon, male. 1998Z29. Source: Birmingham Museums, CC0 – Public Domain.

Two Passenger Pigeon Specimens in England

I recently stumbled upon two more passenger pigeon mounts I was unaware of. The Horninam Museum and Gardens in London, England, has two mounted passenger pigeons, a male and a female. Photos of the birds (NH.Z. 1768 and 1769) can be seen at the museum website.

The two pigeons are part of a natural history collection amassed by Samuel Prout Newcombe in the nineteenth century. Newcombe had owned a number of photography studios in London in the mid 1800s. He also was a writer, and in 1851 wrote a guide to the The Great Exhibition (also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition) that focused on foods of the world, including an entry on the passenger pigeon. Around 1870, Newcombe sold his photography studios and retired to life a leisure.

Keenly interested in natural history, Samuel Prout Newcombe had amassed a large collection of specimens and books on natural history. … “Nature“, the International Journal of Science, reported in 1899 that: “Mr. S. Prout Newcombe has offered the London County Council his educational collection of natural history specimens and literature. This collection, which consists of about 21,000 objects, included a considerable number of works on natural history subjects“. 


The Horniman received the Newcombe collection in 1905.

Fireside facts from the Great Exhibition : Being an amusing series of object lessons on the food and clothing of all nations in the year 1851. Samuel Prout Newcombe 1851:90.