The Last Passenger Pigeon

The Last Passenger Pigeon

Late one afternoon, just recently, I found myself in Metamora. I can’t remember what led me there, except I like the old town and try to get down there at least a few times a year to walk around and see what is, or more likely what’s not, new. 

As per usual, Metamora was mostly still, minus some canal maintenance toward the end of town. The sun was high and blistering hot in a cloudless sky, with no respite of a breeze. A good day for doing not much of anything, which may be why I came down from the farm. I parked near the grist mill, admired its disheveled grace and crossed over the canal. 

Against the odds, or at least my expectations, something shiny and new was mounted in the park area south of Clayborn Street. Upon closer inspection I found myself standing in front of a historical marker, and indeed it was new; placed in 2017 (by the Indiana Historical Bureau, Indiana Audubon Society, Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites)

The subject matter, however, had nothing to do with the canal or even the old town in which it was standing. Nevertheless, it tells a big story about a small animal well worth remembering. In an odd twist of fate for Franklin County, the sad conclusion of this tale took place just outside Laurel. 

Pigeons being shot to save crops in Iowa, 1867 [Wikipedia]

I’ll let the well-considered words on the marker tell the story of the ill-fated passenger pigeon: 

“Known for flocks that darkened the sky, the passenger pigeon was once the most abundant North American bird. A population in the billions as late as 1860 was nearly zero by 1900. Communication and transportation advancements enabled market hunters to kill unprecedented numbers for food and sport. Species became extinct when the last captive bird died September 1, 1914.”

“Before extinction, vast numbers of passenger pigeons inhabited Indiana’s forests as they migrated through the state to the southeastern U.S. in the fall and north in the spring. Nesting colonies spread over miles often attracted amazed onlookers and hunters. The last verified passenger pigeon in the wild was shot about five miles from here near Laurel April 3, 1902.”

Maybe it was the approach of fall and hunting season as a reminder of our inextricable connection to the natural world, or something more timely, I can’t put my finger on it. The new marker’s reminder of a historical narrative, however, doesn’t seem so far in the past.

As a conservation-minded hunter and mostly-literate student of history, I was familiar with the passenger pigeon, but wanted to know what happened between the brief lines on the marker. How does a bird numbering in the billions disappear? More importantly, what lesson is to be learned? 

Some research was in order; I found the answers hidden in plain sight.  

Albeit I’m painting with a broad historical brush, but the story of the passenger pigeon is shockingly common. It shares a narrative with so many other familiar species that have been pushed to the brink. 

Some animals, such as the American bison, just barely survived. Others, like the Carolina parakeet, did not. Many folks are surprised that even the ubiquitous whitetail deer was a rare sight for most of the 20th century in Indiana. The list goes on and on. 

The most frightening aspect of many of these conservation disasters or near-disasters, is that only in hindsight did the vast majority of our populace take notice. 

Earliest published illustration of the species (a male), Image by Mark Catesby, 1731. [Wikipedia]

Conservationists and naturalists frequently sounded the alarm, but to mostly deaf ears. The concept of losing an entire species often just didn’t seem real to the legislature or the common citizen. Only when it was too late (or nearly so) did these stories garner attention.

Today we have extraordinary state and federal game departments enforcing effective regulations. Numerous private groups devote mass amounts of time and money to the protection and management of our natural resources. 

Over-hunting and basic wildlife management issues are no longer widespread concerns. Hunters do more for wildlife (and habitat) conservation than any other single group. It’s not a stretch to assert that most people broadly agree our natural resources require some level of stewardship – a view not necessarily universal in the fairly-recent past. 

We are unquestionably in better shape today than at nearly any period since Europeans showed up on American shores. But we also face different and possibly more insidious challenges than previous generations.

Our modern problems look more like finding a balance between the wants and needs of our growing populace and developments while maintaining an environment that allows our natural resources to survive. 

We live in strange, but not uncommon, times. We’ve had just enough success rehabilitating our natural world that its survival seems a foregone conclusion. 

The biggest threat we face today is believing something like the extinction of the passenger pigeon could never happen again. With its bothersome habit of repeating itself, history shows us that’s just not true. 

Originally published in The Brookville Democrat.

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