For passenger pigeons, flight from abundance to extinction was short

08/29/2014 10:59 PM

08/30/2014 11:15 AM

Friday evening, people gathered to remember Martha.

She was a star in her day. Scarlet eyes and peach-colored breast. Head held high.

Toward the end of her life, people lined up to see her — a glimpse for the ages.

But a hundred years ago Monday, Martha died alone, like she’d been waiting for the room to finally clear. A stroke, they say. She was 29, or somewhere around there.

Those people Friday, sipping drinks as music played at a Martinis with Martha fundraiser at the Cincinnati Zoo, would all agree she was the last of her kind.

When death came, she was hurriedly frozen into 300 pounds of ice and hustled off to the Smithsonian, a tribute to a fallen species and forever a reminder of how humans wiped it out with a gusto exceeded only by their detachment.

Martha was the last passenger pigeon, the last of the billions of the most abundant bird in North America. Flocks 300 miles long blocked the sun like some glorious winged eclipse, darkening the land as they passed overhead.

“I remember thinking it looked like some mighty river winding its way through the air,” a Missouri man wrote of a flock over Cooper County.

So thick they flew, a man in Kansas City reportedly brought down 15 with a single shot.

Martha’s death on Sept. 1, 1914, at the zoo in Cincinnati brought something rare if not new to the world — the exact day of an extinction. Newspapers carried the story around the world as if she were a Hollywood star or former first lady.

Part of it was amazement: How, in only 50 or so years, did billions come down to one bird?

But people knew how it happened. It was a slaughter — a good time, good eatin’ slaughter.

“We did it, we killed it off,” said Joel Greenberg, author of “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.”

“We chased it all those years until it was gone.”

People killed the passenger pigeon for sport, commerce and fun. With no laws in place to protect migratory birds, hunters blasted away at nesting sites, killing breeding adults and nestlings alike.

They sold them. They ate them off poor folks’ tables and in elegant hotel dining rooms. Farmers fed them to hogs. People crammed them into barrels and loaded them onto trains.

Passenger pigeon wings were used to fill potholes.

Until there was only Martha. An offer of $1,000 went out for a mate, a gesture as foolishly hopeful as the reason for it was shameful.

Greenberg, who spoke not long ago in Kansas City, said the lasting lesson of the passenger pigeon is that abundance does not guarantee survival. The bird’s lasting gift is the laws that followed Martha’s death, the ones to protect endangered species and migratory birds.

But extinction apparently doesn’t ring with the finality it used to. Researchers are working to “de-extinct” the bird. They got their hands on some of the 1,500 or so known passenger pigeon specimens and are hoping to resurrect the species through some “Jurassic Park”-like genetic engineering.

Instead of using frog DNA to fill out the missing parts of a dinosaur’s genetic code as in Michael Crichton’s story, the real-life “bring-back-the-passenger pigeon” researchers are using the bird’s closest relative, the band-tailed pigeon.

This petri-dish mulligan should thrill bird lovers and conservationists, right? Get the bird back and maybe get humans off the hook.

No, it doesn’t. The work is shaping up to be more about genetic science than conservation. Bird lovers seem to be more concerned about protecting the endangered species we still have.

“I would rather we save the prairie chicken than bring back the passenger pigeon,” said Mark B. Robbins, the ornithology collection manager at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute.

He dismissed any bird that comes from “de-extinction” efforts as a hybrid.

Robbins has the real thing. One recent day on the top floor of Dyche Hall on the KU campus, he pulled a shallow box from a stainless-steel cabinet serving as a tomb of the avian extinct.

Carolina parakeets, an ivory-billed woodpecker, small dusky seaside sparrows — colors as vibrant as if they had died yesterday. And three passenger pigeons, one killed in 1872 in Boston, according to its tag.

This is as close to the passenger pigeon as Robbins cares to be. He smiles with amazement when he talks of the mighty flocks. He then speaks of profound regret, anger even, about their slaughter.

So have we learned enough that it won’t happen again, to another animal?

“Well,” he said, followed by a thoughtful pause. “No.”

An engaging story

A Ukrainian writer by the name of Marjana Gaponenko has written a new book, “Who is Martha?”

It’s a novel. She wrote it in German.

Ponder that. A 31-year-old Ukrainian author writes a novel in German about a North American bird that died out a hundred years ago in Cincinnati.

“The power of the story continues to manifest,” said Greenberg, who is part of Project Passenger Pigeon, a collaboration of scientists, conservationists, artists and educators who want to draw attention to the centennial and promote habitat protection.

Five novels with some sort of passenger pigeon element have been published since 2010, said Greenberg, who spoke earlier this year to an Audubon Society group in Kansas City.

“The story of what happened to this bird is so engaging that even if you tell it to someone who has no interest in birds, they will ask questions,” Greenberg said.

In 1800, passenger pigeons in the United States counted into the billions, mostly concentrated in huge flocks. Ship captains talked about black clouds of birds they saw over the Eastern seaboard.

John James Audubon once wrote of a flock he encountered in western Kentucky that took three days to pass overhead. He estimated its size at more than a billion birds and said the resulting dung was not unlike falling snow.

On the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive website, one can see a research paper published in 1960 by Daniel McKinley called “A History of the Passenger Pigeon in Missouri.”

It cites Christian Schultz, who wrote in 1810 about seeing a large grove of willows that appeared to have been ravaged by a tornado. Limbs lay broken from trees, and “middling saplings were bent to the ground.”

He later discovered it had been a roosting spot for passenger pigeons.

Another man talked of a flock that settled near Stoutland in the middle of the state.

“One curious circumstance is that we never see a pigeon from the time they leave of mornings until they return of evening. But somewhere they are feasting abundantly, for they are all fat.”

Then came the two things credited with doing in the bird: the telegraph and the railroad.

The telegraph enabled word of a giant flock’s location to spread quickly. Hunters came and killed as rapidly as they could pull triggers, everyone bagging dozens if not hundreds of the birds in a day.

Trains allowed shipment of their bodies to cities all over the country: Meat sold by the ton.

By 1900, they were nearly all gone. The disappearance came so fast, rumors spawned that the bird had mysteriously migrated to South America.

Only Michigan enacted a law to protect the bird.

Too late, and only Martha was left. Her mate, George, had died four years earlier.

A story in The Kansas City Star on Sept. 2, 1914, said Martha died “of an apoplectic stroke as it had a similar stroke several weeks ago. It was found dead beside the low roost made for it when it became too infirm to fly to its accustomed roost.”

Bringing them back

Who knows — the Kansas City Zoo could someday welcome a wooly mammoth.

Considering the last one disappeared 4,000 years ago, that’s rather remarkable.

But scientists say any extinct animal can be brought back as long as good DNA can be found.

An organization called Revive & Restore is working as a hub for the genetic research. On its website, it talks about the mammoth, dodo, Irish elk and thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger.

These resurrections would take lots of time and money. There are questions, too. For starters: Do the natural habitats of these animals still exist?

And as Ross MacPhee, a curator of mammalogy at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, told National Geographic: “What we really need to think about is why we would want to do this in the first place.”

Revive & Restore has its answer: “To preserve biodiversity, to restore diminished ecosystems, to advance the science of preventing extinctions, and to undo harm that humans have caused in the past.”

As for the passenger pigeon, researchers like the symmetry of humans bringing back a species they killed out.

According to Beth Shapiro, a molecular biologist and professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, a team of scientists working on the Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback is close to arranging a representation of the original chromosomes to create a “first draft” of the genome of this species.

It’s important to keep in mind, she said, that the bird’s population fluctuated greatly as resources changed.

“This means that we probably won’t need to bring back billions of birds for their populations to be sustainable, as long as we can keep ourselves from killing them,” Shapiro said.

The National Audubon Society takes no position, but Geoff LeBaron, who directs the group’s Christmas Bird Count, said he would rather see resources go toward endangered species.

“It would really make more sense to focus on those,” LeBaron said.

Robbins at KU agrees. The world had the passenger pigeon and threw it away, he said. The duty now is to not let the same happen to another animal.

Back in 1914 when people lined up so see Martha at the end, some reportedly tossed sand her way. To get the old bird to move.

Martha was the last of her kind. Some think she should stay that way.

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

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