Passenger Pigeon Book Winners!

Congratulation to Bob L. and Jennifer, the winners of this month’s double book giveaway of The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller, published by Princeton University Press (September 2014). Thank you to everyone who entered, and especially to Jessica Pellien from Princeton University Press for making the giveaway possible.


Passenger Pigeon Book Giveaway

PassengerPigeonbookAs part of the commemorations marking the centennial year of the last Passenger Pigeon’s death, Princeton University Press is sponsoring a giveaway of two print copies of the new book, The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller.

Mr. Fuller is a world authority on bird and animal extinction and is an acclaimed artist and writer. His books include Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, Extinct Birds, and Dodo: From Extinction to Icon.

To enter the contest, just leave your comment in this post with the name of which extinct bird you find most interesting.

The deadline to enter is December 9th. After two random draws, I’ll announce the winners on Thursday, December 10th.

Some reviews of The Passenger Pigeon to whet your interest:

GrrlScientist’s review for The Guardian
Grant McCreary’s review for The Birder’s Library
Adrian Barnett’s review for New Scientist
Donna’s review for 10,000 Birds

Good luck everyone!

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When I was in Washington, DC earlier this month, I was fascinated by the “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The display features four of North American’s extinct avian species: the Carolina Parakeet, Heath Hen, Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon.

In the Passenger Pigeon display, Martha, the last known of her species, sits mounted on a branch. She died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The exhibit, which runs through January 3, 2016 (extended from the original closing date of October 2015), is well worth seeing if you go to Washington, DC.

Remembering Martha

The Passenger Pigeons was once the most numerous bird species in North America, perhaps in the world. Early colonists were amazed by the vast flocks of the birds, which sometimes darkened the sky for days. On a trip from Louisville to Henderson, Kentucky, John James Audubon wrote, “The air was literally filled with Pigeons”, and that “The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of the wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”
Pigeon3These flocks of Passenger Pigeons could contain hundreds of millions, if not billions, of birds. By the 1870s, Passenger Pigeons could still be seen in large numbers, but a mere 40 years later, only two of the birds remained, Martha and George (named after President and Mrs. Washington). After George died, Martha was the only bird of the species left.

In 1899, her caretakers at the Cincinnati Zoo offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find a mate for her, but no-one ever succeeded. Martha lived to be 29 years old, but on September 1, 1914 (100 years ago today), she was found dead in her enclosure — the very last of her species.

Martha, mounted, is now on display at the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, as part of the exhibit, “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America”, from now until October 2015, to commemorate the centennial of her death. The exhibit includes mounted specimens of three other extinct avian species — the Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, and the Heath Hen. Running in conjunction with “Once There Were Billions” is “The Lost Bird Project” by artist Todd McGrain, at the Smithsonian Libraries and Smithsonian Gardens, from March 27, 2015 through May 15, 2015.

It’s nearly impossible to understand that these birds were so plentiful at one time, but habitat loss and overhunting was too much for the species. It’s so sad to think that we humans were the main cause that led to the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, a species that migrated in flocks of billions, now not a single living bird left on the planet. Interestingly, especially with this year’s centennial, there has been discussion and even some progress about a “de-extinction” program for the Passenger Pigeon, and perhaps for other species, such as the Mammoth. But it concerns me to think that such a program might cause people to be less concerned, rather than more concerned, about species conservation and the threat of extinction, and it also does not take into account an environment that has been without billions of one species for more than a century. There are many questions to ask ourselves now, as we remember Martha and the billions of other Passenger Pigeons who filled our skies.


Some of my favourite quotes about bird conservation, as we remember the legacy of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon:

“They were here when we came, the birds which are a part of the American picture. They watched the cabins going up in the clearing at Plymouth, knew the secret of the lost people of Roanoke, clung in wide-eyed silence in the woods during the battles for freedom, moved out when cities grew, moved back again when gardens and bird pools and feeding stands said ‘welcome’ and meant it. These birds are as much a part of America as its trees, its plains, its waters, its history, its shores, its hills, yet they are only as permanent as we choose—only as permanent, in fact, as the trees, the waters, the soil itself. They all are linked in the great picture of the American whole—a picture which is determined by the preserving or the squandering of the land and its inhabitants.”

Virginia S. Eifert, from her essay, “These Birds Are America”, 1945

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“Out of the blending of human and animal stories comes the theme that I hope is inherent in all my books: that man is an inescapable part of all nature, that its welfare is his welfare, that to survive, he cannot continue acting and regarding himself as a spectator looking on from somewhere outside.”

Fred Bodsworth (1918-2012), Canadian naturalist and author of Last of the Curlews

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“Birds should be saved for utilitarian reasons; and, moreover, they should be saved because of reasons unconnected with dollars and cents. . . [T]o lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, …. why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.”

Theodore Roosevelt

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“Without birds, nature would lose her voice and the planet its most engaging envoys. Birds matter precisely because they matter to us. Environment is a concept. Nature a label. Birds are real, elements that live within our sensory plane. They spread their wings and bridge the gap between our world and the natural world.”

Pete Dunne, author and birding ambassador/former longtime director of the Cape May (NJ) Bird Observatory, in reply to the question posed by Audubon Magazine editors, “Why Do Birds Matter?”, March 2013

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“It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Birding News #81

For this week’s installment of Birding News, I have something a bit different — a few news stories but for the most part a round-up of articles remembering the Passenger Pigeon and the largest-scale human-caused extinction in history:

Mercury contamination in the environment affects birds‘ songs and feather colour

From now until the end of October, British nature and bird lovers have the chance to vote on a national bird

The state of Mississippi’s Commission on Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks accidentally banned backyard bird feeders last week.

The Madagascan Pochard, already the world’s rarest bird, is in danger of dying out because of human threats to the one wetland the duck calls home.

The University of Kansas Libraries has digitized 6,000 bird illustrations by 19th century ornithologist John Gould, considered by
some as “the greatest figure in bird illustration after Audubon”

A “poor innocent pelican is off the hook” after court officials found that a sports car aficionado who drove a Bugatti into a saltwater marsh and totalled the vehicle was not distracted by the bird but behind an insurance scam.

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Remembering Martha and the legacy of hunting a species into extinction:

“Saving Our Birds” by John W. Fitzpatrick, executive director of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times

“A Century of Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert, in The New Yorker

“Century After Extinction, Passenger Pigeons Remain Iconic—And Scientists Hope to Bring Them Back” by science writer and blogger Carl Zimmer for National Geographic

“Post-pigeon: 100 years since most common bird’s extinction” by Mark Avery, author of A Message from Martha (Bloomsbury, July 2014), in The Guardian

“How America’s most plentiful bird disappeared”, an interview by Shannon Heffernan for WBEZ with naturalist Joel Greenberg, author of A Feathered River Across The Sky, The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury, January 2014)

“One Hundred Years after Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon” by Jon McCracken, director of national programs for Bird Studies Canada (BSC), in the Summer 2014 issue of BSC’s magazine, BirdWatch Canada

“13 Memories of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon” by Chelsea Harvey and Elizabeth Newbern for Audubon Magazine

“100 Years After Her Death, Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, Still Resonates: The famed bird now finds itself at the center of a flap over de-extinction” by William Souder for Smithsonian Magazine

“A Centenary for the Last Passenger Pigeon”, an op-ed by Steve Zack, co-ordinator of Bird Conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society

GrrlScientist’s new books party/”mini” review in The Guardian — as she writes, “A more detailed review of this book is forthcoming, so I won’t tell you any more here, except to say that this book is worth buying and reading” — of Errol Fuller’s The Passenger Pigeon, to be published next week, September 7th, by Princeton University Press

“Ancient DNA Could Return Passenger Pigeons to the Sky” by David Biello for Scientific American

“A silver lining in the passenger pigeon’s demise” by Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, for The Cleveland Plain-Dealer