Originally Posted by Original PaulE
On reading the paper submitted by others, it would seem rather than being a reprehensible act by humanity against a single species, the demise of the Passenger Pigeon can be seen as an inevitable and given the knowledge available at the time unavoidable consequence, of the colonisation of the North American continent by European settlers and only avoidable had the Europeans not colonized. So not really on a par with the Holocaust. Admittedly the shooting contests held at the time were reprehensible by todays standards, it was surely the destruction of habitat for farming that was the biggest factor coinciding as it did with the low point in their population cycle. I would say that the deliberate slaughter of millions of Bison in order to starve the Native Population was a greater crime against nature.
And would also say that the many crimes being carried out today such as the destruction of the Rainforest are far worse as we are doing them in the full knowledge of the harm they are causing at least 19th century people had ignorance as their defence
I’m hesitant about commenting on your post because I don’t want this thread to degenerate into a discussion on a ranking of which act against a species was worse than another. This is because when people do such rankings there is a tendency in peoples minds to somewhat diminish the despicable nature of the lesser ranked act (“Yes but Act B wasn’t as bad as Act A”). This wasn’t my purpose for starting this thread. My mention of the extreme magnitude of the passenger pigeon case was merely as a means of emphasizing how despicable a thing it was and to underscore how surprising it is regarding how few people know the story of such an extreme act (also of note here is that the extreme magnitude of what was done to the passenger pigeon is a historical fact, not an opinion). My purpose for starting this thread was to promote the story of the passenger pigeon because of the strong conservation message it conveys and (because of the latter) to introduce it to people who may be unfamiliar with it. In this vain, I’m only commenting on your post because it wrongly diminishes the strength of this message through flawed rationale and inaccurate information. So, I’ll engage in a long essay here in order to address these issues.
I’ll start by stating that I disagree with the rationale you used in the first part of your post, which wasn’t well thought out. An act that is reprehensible remains reprehensible regardless of whether or not it’s perceived as having been inevitable. I’m sure that you agree that what was done to the American Indians in N. America was reprehensible. Yet, by the very same rationale you use for the passenger pigeon regarding the inevitable colonization of N. America this would be excused as not being reprehensible. Ditto for what was done to the buffalo and there are many other examples that could be cited. Your rationale also fails to incorporate the simple reality that alternate choices and acts were available. Just as we do today (notably re. our continuing environmental degradation), the European derived colonizers of N. America had choices available to them, both ethical and unethical (including in regard to the passenger pigeon). Unfortunately, too often the unethical path was chosen and followed, leading to despicable acts and policies. In many cases it’s the very choice to take the unethical path when other ethical options were available that people find most reprehensible. Finally, inherent in your rationale (along with its failure to incorporate the reality that alternate options exist) is the inference that humans and the huge population of passenger pigeons couldn’t coexist. This is completely untrue. The fact is that prior to the beginning of colonization by Europeans, humans—American Indians and their ancestors—had been inhabiting N. America probably for at least 15-16,000 years (or at least 13,000 years for those who wish to cling to the debunked ‘Clovis first’ theory) by that time. When the first European explorers and settlers arrived they noted that the passenger pigeons existed in their billions (and an estimated 25-40% of N. America's birds were passenger pigeons!), proving that the American Indian people and the huge population of passenger pigeons were coexisting just fine—and thus proving that humans and the huge pigeon population could coexist. So, though it was possible to do so, it was the European colonizer humans with their greed, their callous attitude of dominion and ownership, and their destructive way of life who wouldn’t coexist with the passenger pigeon.
Your statement that “it was surely the destruction of habitat for farming that was the biggest factor coinciding as it did with the low point in their population cycle” is just wrong. That statement makes it appear as though perhaps you haven’t read the books by Schorger and Greenberg which are the most authoritative books on the passenger pigeon and that you are unfamiliar with the actual observations and accounts of what transpired (which are a major element of these books). These observations and accounts clearly show that it was the monumentally massive slaughter by humans that was responsible for the meteoric decline of the species that sealed its fate. This rapid, fatal population crash occurred within a mere three decade period, from the 1860’s into the 1880’s. The observation by King (probably in 1860) of an inconceivably large mega-flock at the beginning of this period confirms that the population was still huge and thriving at this time. This astounding mega-flock consisted of an estimated one-plus billion to 3.7 billion pigeons! Habitat destruction almost certainly was having some effect on the pigeons at this time. However, the existence of from one to several billion pigeons in this flock shows that the habitat was still capable of supporting a huge population at the time when the meteoric decline began—and thus that habitat destruction had not progressed to the point where it was even close to being a threat to the species’ existence at this juncture. Following this up, the observations and accounts clearly show that it was the relentless, unprecedented massive slaughter from the huge gatherings of the pigeons that accounted for the loss of millions upon millions of pigeons during this period which caused the rapid decline (i.e., these millions of pigeons were clearly the victims of documented human slaughter, not habitat destruction). Further exacerbating the impact of these slaughters is the fact that the ones that occurred at large colonial nestings (the most important events of the year for the pigeons) were by far the worse. This is because the slaughters of mega-flocks passing in flight and at night roosts were short term events while the colonial nestings (which involved the nesting/incubation and chick rearing periods) were longer term affairs. This meant that there was more time to communicate the presence and location of the mass gathering, more time for more people from outside the immediate area to journey to and participate in the slaughter, more time to prepare logistically, and much more time with which to conduct the slaughter. Due to the continuous massive, relentless assaults on the huge colonial nestings, time after time they were productively insufficient or wholly unsuccessful leaving the species with no chance whatsoever of keeping pace with the immense annual mortality being inflicted upon it by humans.
Your claim that 19th century people had ignorance as their defense is inaccurate (nor is it ever a valid excuse for deliberately committing despicable acts). In fact, there were many who opposed the slaughter and fought to stop it (especially at the large colonial nestings). They even succeeded in getting a few laws enacted toward this end. However, the laws were wholly inadequate, were readily and wantonly violated, and enforcement of them was a joke.
For the reason noted above I don’t want to say anything re. your relative ranking of the buffalo vs. passenger pigeon cases because I don’t want to say anything that might, in some peoples’ minds, diminish the horrific nature of what was done to the buffalo. I will only point out here a very important aspect in which these cases differ: the passenger pigeon was driven to extinction but (thankfully) the buffalo was not and still exists today (though only in captivity and in scattered herds that are a mere shadow of their former magnificence).
I will again further clarify my statement that among the individual species that humans have driven to extinction the case of the passenger pigeon is the single most reprehensible and extreme. This statement is made from the perspective of the magnitude of what was done. I wasn’t stating an opinion here, I was stating what is, from this perspective, a historical fact. You can search the historical records and you won’t find any other species’ case that comes close to matching the scale and extreme nature of the passenger pigeon case. None of these other victimized, now extinct species had such a super-abundant population that gathered in such inconceivably large groupings, suffered slaughters of such staggering numbers of individuals or were reduced from billions to none in such a short time. In order to place passenger pigeon abundance in perspective consider the following. At its height the buffalo population was an estimated 30-60 million. If one were take all 60 million and place them in a single herd (something which never occurred) this wouldn’t even come close in numbers to the estimated 2.2 BILLION pigeons in the mega-flock observed by Wilson. In regard to the obscene, extreme magnitude of the slaughter consider reports of the astonishing number of pigeons that could be killed with a single shotgun blast or taken in a single netting set, and the unbelievably massive number of pigeons known to be slaughtered in a single day and during the course of a large colonial nesting event. The greed and glut driving this unmatched bloody slaughter was despicable. Add to all this the fact that this incredibly numerous species was driven to extinction essentially within a period of a mere three decades! In my passenger pigeon story I noted that there is a category of historical events “…(such as the Holocaust) that are so incredibly heinous, so profound in the lessons they convey that they must continually be retold so that these lessons are not forgotten.” The inconceivable scale, magnitude and reprehensible nature of the human-caused extinction of the passenger pigeon leave no doubt that it belongs in this category. It is for this reason that this episode is of such great significance. [And note that I made no comparative ranking here between the passenger pigeon extinction event and the Holocaust as to which was worse. I merely noted the Holocaust as an example of the kind of historical events that belong in this category (in fact, my mention of the Holocaust here was just a case of me doing my part to aid in keeping the memory of that unconscionable event alive).] Again, I strongly recommend the books by Schorger and Greenberg with their many actual observations and accounts, particularly as a counter to any attempts to diminish the incredible abundance of the species and the monumental scale of the slaughter (note that Schorger spent 40 years researching the species).
Finally, I reiterate that my discussion is focused on the level of what was done to individual species that were the victims of human-caused extinction. Thus, your reference regarding the destruction of the rainforests (i.e., an environmental situation or event and not an individual species) as being a greater offense is not appropriate to this particular discussion. That aside, in looking at deleterious human impact from the level of environmental situations and events (and avoiding rankings) your choice of rainforest destruction is an excellent example, notably because the effects of this are felt in numerous different ways. It bears on the welfare of more species than any other terrestrial habitat given that it’s the most biodiverse of the terrestrial habitats. It’s a significant carbon “bank” (and thus is a significant element regarding climate change). It’s a significant producer of our atmospheric oxygen. It’s a factor and influence on weather and the hydrologic cycle. And (notably in the Amazon region) rainforest destruction is causing the displacement and destruction of the homelands and way of life of native peoples. Etc., etc… Viewing human crimes against nature from a broader, more general level we have, of course, the massively serious, increasingly desperate crises of human-caused climate change and the ongoing human-caused mass extinction crisis. Yes, humans have certainly been a serious blight to our home world.