Project Passenger Pigeon:
A Century of Memories and Lessons from the Passenger Pigeon
2014 marks the centenary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. Numbering in the billions in 1800, the last bird died on September 1, 1914; driven to extinction by human activity. Project Passenger Pigeon is an international effort to commemorate this anniversary and use it not only as an opportunity to familiarize people with this remarkable species, but also to raise awareness of current issues related to human-caused extinction, explore connections between humans and the natural world, and inspire people to become more involved in building a sustainable relationship with other species.
Project Passenger Pigeon:
A Century of Memories and Lessons from the Passenger Pigeon
2014 marks the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon – once the most abundant bird species in North America, if not the world. We, a group of scientists, educators, conservationists, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and others, are working together to use the centenary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction to engage people in this remarkable story and to use it as an opportunity to promote habitat preservation and species conservation. Our goals are to: a) familiarize people in North America and beyond with the passenger pigeon and its extinction; b) explore how human activity impacts other species c) motivate people to take actions that both promote biodiversity and prevent human-caused extinctions.
In the year 1800, more than five billion passenger pigeons crisscrossed the skies of the eastern United States and Canada. Passing flocks could darken the skies for three days straight. However, in the face of relentless slaughter for food and recreation, coupled with habitat loss, this seemingly inexhaustible resource was depleted in just a few decades. By 1900 the species was virtually extinct, and by mid-afternoon of September 1, 1914, Martha, the last of her species, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.
The story of how the most abundant bird in North America disappeared so quickly is unique in the annals of human history. Though a century has passed since the loss of this species, it remains a poignant example of nature’s abundance, as well as a powerful reminder of humanity’s ability to exhaust seemingly endless riches. The echoes of the passenger pigeon’s life still resonate today and can teach us lessons of stewardship, hope, and sustainable living for the 21st century.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, isolated from the natural world that sustains them, yet no species or environment is isolated enough to escape the influence of humanity. Focused on our human sphere, we tend to discount other species and forget how integral they are to our well-being; extinction threatens many kind of life. Besides our dependence on other species and their habitats for all aspects of our survival, including food, shelter, and medicines, we take pleasure in their beauty and rely on them for recreational and spiritual sustenance. Imagine never again enjoying the color and fragrance of your favorite flowers, or watching squirrels scurry through the trees. The passenger pigeon’s story is proof that even common species can be lost forever if we do not interact with them in a sustainable manner. The centenary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction provides a portal through which we can highlight the connections all of us have to the natural world and the power we each have to influence the world for good.
Though the world is a different place than when the last passenger pigeon flocks flew, the impact of its extinction is still felt, and the lessons of the bird’s life and loss have considerable relevance today. The creation of many conservation laws and initiatives were inspired by the passenger pigeon’s extinction, yet human-caused extinctions are still occurring, and at an accelerating and unprecedented rate. Many species are threatened or endangered, perhaps poised to become the passenger pigeons of the present. In fact, many scientists believe that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in the 4.5 billion-year history of our planet—one almost entirely driven by human actions. It is our hope that the story of the passenger pigeon’s extinction will serve as an opportunity to reflect and act, so that we can learn to better manage our relationships with other species and become more responsible members of the ecologically and evolutionarily dynamic natural communities in which we live.
This international effort aims to familiarize as many people as possible with the history of the passenger pigeon and its extinction; raise awareness of how the issue of extinction is ecologically, culturally, and morally relevant to the 21st Century; encourage and support respectful relationships with other species; motivate people to take actions to prevent human-caused extinction, and to promote biodiversity through habitat preservation and restoration, captive breeding programs, government initiatives, and other measures. Perhaps most importantly, we hope to inspire people to think about their own role within the larger biotic community and to develop curiosity and wonder for the complexity, mystery, and uniqueness of the species we share the planet with.
These goals will be accomplished through a wide range of activities in four main categories: educational materials, exhibitions, public events, and citizen engagement. Each of these categories will present the history of the passenger pigeon in a way that encourages hope, and will draw parallels with contemporary issues to promote action towards a sustainable future for today’s species.
Educational materials for the primary and secondary school levels will be designed to meet state science education standards. They will be made available online, through formal and informal educator networks, and participating institutions.
Other audiences will be reached through web sites and exhibits elucidating the passenger pigeon story and those of other species currently in peril. Materials will also be created to allow communities, libraries, and other institutions to create their own passenger pigeon-related exhibits. Public events and cultural activities that help people realize the physical, biological, and inspirational scale of the passenger pigeon are planned in conjunction with local artists and institutions.
Citizens will be invited and encouraged to create and distribute their own educational materials about the passenger pigeon, the meaning of extinction, what steps are needed to halt human-caused extinctions, and what we can do to restore and better co-inhabit our shared places. This will include contests and other means of citizen science and engagement, facilitated by cyber infrastructure and social media.
Project Passenger Pigeon will operate at three levels. One level will seek to bring about activities on the national levels of Canada, the United States, and other interested countries. This would include advocating legislative resolutions; working for issuance of commemorative postage stamps; engaging the national media through contact and the provision of information and speakers; facilitating the production of a documentary film, and other activities. Another level will seek to build and support a broad network of participants including local, state, provincial and regional institutions such as museums, zoos, nature centers, universities, primary and secondary schools, and other governmental, cultural, and educational entities. Finally, we seek to catalyze the participation of individual citizens in activities that stimulate conservation action and turn the tragic story of the passenger pigeon into one of inspiration and progress.
Important to the success of Project Passenger Pigeon is having a structure that can accommodate a wide range of partners as well as garnering the financial support necessary to most effectively act in its role as coordinator, recruiter, and facilitator. Proposed structure: I) Steering Committee: Oversee coordination, strategy development and implementation; II) Secretariat: Manage grant applications and other financial aspects of the project; III) Technical Committee: Assemble factual content and resources; IV) Various working groups as needed to accomplish specific tasks such as web development, educational content, exhibitions, communications, etc.
Currently, Project expenses are being born by participants. We intend to apply for a range of funding to support activities as well as minimal coordinating personnel.
Our Team and Qualifications
Though this project is still in its nascent stages, the power of the passenger pigeon’s story has already attracted participation from a wide range of influential institutions and individuals representing diverse fields including ornithology, education, writing, policy, programming, and art. A complete list of participants is attached below.
PARTICIPATING INSTITUTIONS (as of 6/11/11):
Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia PA
Aldo Leopold Foundation, Baraboo WI
Amos Butler Audubon Society, Indianapolis, IN
Ball State University, Muncie, IN
Canadian Museum of Science, Ottawa, ON
Center for Humans and Nature, Chicago IL
Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL
Chippewa Nature Center, Midland, MI
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Cincinnati OH
Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland OH
Cornell University, Department of Art, Ithaca, NY
Cornell University, Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY
Fenner Nature Center, Lansing, MI
Friends of Ryerson Woods, Riverwoods, IL
Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI
Harbor Springs Area Historical Society and Harbor Springs History Museum, Harbor Springs, MI
Illinois Natural History Survey, Champaign, IL
Illinois State Museum, Springfield, IL
Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, IN
Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, IN
Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Indianapolis, IN
International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI
Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Bangladesh
Bell Museum of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
Kalamazoo Nature Center, Kalamazoo, MI
Kingman Museum, Battle Creek, MI
Lakeshore Museum Center, Muskegon, MI
Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, WI
Love Creek Nature Center, Niles, MI
Massachusetts Audubon Society, Lincoln, MA
Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Lansing, MI
Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, MI
National Audubon Society, New York, NY
National Council for Science and the Environment, Washington DC
Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Columbus, OH
Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, OH
Peabody Museum, Yale University, New Haven, CT
Castle Museum of Saginaw County History, Saginaw, MI
Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Lafayette, LA
University of Illinois (Chicago), Chicago, IL
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT
Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, Madison, WI
Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison, WI
Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH
Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, Cordoba, Argentina