WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) - Joni Mitchell once sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” And, in the case of the passenger pigeon, we really don’t know what we “got” because the last passenger pigeon flew the coop long before anyone alive today was born.
The loss of the passenger pigeon is magnified a billion-fold because, at one time, it was so plentiful a flock was known to darken the skies above American cities, just as the bison and the buffalo could darken hundreds of square miles of Midwestern plains. Yet, unless some group of passenger pigeons has gone into hiding - like monks in the Dark Ages - we won’t see this majestic creature alive again.
The last passenger pigeon died - in a zoo, no less - on Sept. 1, 1914.
To note the centenary of the passenger pigeon’s passing, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History has arranged a small assemblage called “From Billions to Zero.” It is composed of three specimens from the Peabody’s peerless bird collection of 140,000, along with a passenger pigeon nest and egg found more than a century ago in Hamden. The brief accompanying write up about the species’ history includes a photograph of Martha, the last passenger pigeon in existence, just before her death in 1914.
Like tiny Egyptian mummies, the Peabody’s pigeons lie side by side by side - a juvenile male, adult female and adult male, the latter the size of a small chicken. They are mute but strangely haunting in their “aliveness.” Curator Kristof Zyskowsky, the Peabody’s collections manager for ornithology and mammalogy, said, “Until now, only a select few have had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and see these specimens. This is a wonderful opportunity to share a part of the collection with a greater audience.”
Though “From Billions to Zero” is a just a token of recognition, more memorial than exhibition, the display is touching in its simplicity, befitting the occasion. It also serves as a portal into the more popular permanent bird displays on the museum’s third floor which any visitor will want to examine after viewing the passenger pigeons on view - if only to look at bird species we still have time to save. As a mental exercise, to get a sense of the loss that the passenger pigeon represents, it is useful to stand at each display of groupings - the owls, hawks, eagles, terns, gulls, shorebirds, songbirds, even the old crows and ghastly vultures - and imagine a world today without them.
In their heyday, it would have been hard to imagine that passenger pigeons could ever go extinct. Their habitat spread from New England to the Midwest and they numbered in the billions, far outstripping the numbers of most other North American species…of any kind. Given their sheer numbers and their propensity to fly in massive flocks, “hunting” these pigeons was as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. They were good to eat, apparently, so they were a ready source of dinner; thus, wholescale slaughters took place regularly.
The passenger pigeon’s Achilles heel, so to speak, was the fact that adult females only laid one egg per clutch, which slowed down the reproduction process. This didn’t seem to matter at their peak populations, but it helps to explain the precipitous drop in numbers once the shooting started. Also, their habitat slowly shrunk due to industrialization and the inevitable environmental damage accruing to that.
Fittingly, the extensive bird displays at the Peabody end with a skeleton and artist’s sculptural re-creation of a dodo, a bird species that met the same fate as the passenger pigeon.
In the same song cited above, Joni Mitchell sang, “They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum. And they charged all the people a dollar and a half to see ‘em.”
In its own small way, “From Billions to Zero” echoes the singer’s satiric warning.
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