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Passenger Pigeon Story

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Old Friday 31st July 2020, 00:33   #1
pbgrebe
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Passenger Pigeon Story

Given the magnitude of what was done, the human-caused extinction of the passenger pigeon stands as the single most reprehensible of our many crimes against nature. Within a period of essentially just three decades our species drove what almost certainly was the most numerous avian species ever to extinction. To fully comprehend just how heinous an act this was one need only read the past accounts and observations of the passenger pigeon that were recorded before the slaughter began and as it proceeded. There are numerous accounts of passenger pigeon flocks that numbered in the millions, flocks that blackened the sky and flew overhead in a continuous flow over the course of an entire day! A nineteenth century naturalist Alexander Wilson even reported an astounding mega-flock that he estimated to contain 2.2 billion pigeons!!!

Surprisingly, despite the incredible magnitude of this episode the story of the passenger pigeon languishes in relative obscurity among the human populace. The last known passenger pigeon was a female named Martha who was housed in a zoo. She died on Sept. 1, 1914 and this is generally recognized as the day that the species went extinct. With the anniversary of this day approaching it is appropriate that this solemn day be recognized and observed for the hugely important lesson it conveys regarding the impact of humans on the millions of other species that share this planet with us. Those who are concerned with conserving the life on our planet should relate this story to others, noting that it stands as a prime example of the unparalleled capacity of our species to destroy life. In this light I have attached a piece that I wrote about the passenger pigeon in order to relate its sad, tragic story to any interested person who might be unfamiliar with this tale. The piece is an excerpted chapter from a book that I wrote (the book was essentially unpublished—only a handful of copies were produced). I wrote this piece because I wanted to give my personal take on this immensely significant episode and what it says about our species. I feel that humanity needs to be held fully accountable in the harshest manner and smacked hard in the face for what it did to these gentle, innocent birds (and is continuing to do to the life on Earth). Humanity doesn’t deserve to have its feelings coddled but should instead be made to feel the stinging emotional barbs warranted by its callous, greed-driven actions (which included the despicable use of thousands of live passenger pigeons as the targets in grim shooting tournaments).

For those who wish to read a fuller account of the passenger pigeon story I highly recommend the book The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction by A. W. Schorger. Though somewhat dated this is an amazing work. Schorger’s research on this extinct species was quite remarkable and he uncovered and included many startling, mind-boggling firsthand accounts. For an excellent, more recent book on the passenger pigeon I also highly recommend A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction by Joel Greenberg. In addition to these books I recommend the DVD documentary about the passenger pigeon titled From Billions to None (this is the documentary that aired on PBS stations in the U.S.).
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Old Saturday 1st August 2020, 00:59   #2
SanAngelo
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1491 and The Columbian Exchange

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Old Saturday 1st August 2020, 06:38   #3
pbgrebe
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To SanAngelo,

As a clarification, in my phrase “… the single most reprehensible of our many crimes against nature” my reference here is in regard to what was done to a particular species. In other words, of all the individual species that humanity has driven to extinction the case of the passenger pigeon is the most reprehensible of them (notably in light of the super-abundance of this species and the incomprehensibly large groupings that it gathered in prior to the unmitigated slaughter and decimation by humans).
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Old Saturday 1st August 2020, 10:21   #4
THE_FERN
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https://www.pnas.org/content/111/29/10636

Not always super abundant. I'm unclear where this leaves the passenger pigeon as a possible example of a species demonstrating an Allee effect (it's been suggested that it needed a minimum colony size to stimulate breeding)
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Old Saturday 1st August 2020, 19:15   #5
SanAngelo
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Originally Posted by THE_FERN View Post
https://www.pnas.org/content/111/29/10636

Not always super abundant. I'm unclear where this leaves the passenger pigeon as a possible example of a species demonstrating an Allee effect (it's been suggested that it needed a minimum colony size to stimulate breeding)

Thanks for the link; good paper, kinda validates Mann 9 years after his contention as well as yours on the Allee effect.
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Old Sunday 2nd August 2020, 14:28   #6
Original PaulE
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Originally Posted by pbgrebe View Post
To SanAngelo,

As a clarification, in my phrase “… the single most reprehensible of our many crimes against nature” my reference here is in regard to what was done to a particular species. In other words, of all the individual species that humanity has driven to extinction the case of the passenger pigeon is the most reprehensible of them (notably in light of the super-abundance of this species and the incomprehensibly large groupings that it gathered in prior to the unmitigated slaughter and decimation by humans).
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
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Old Thursday 6th August 2020, 20:42   #7
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Originally Posted by THE_FERN View Post
https://www.pnas.org/content/111/29/10636

Not always super abundant. I'm unclear where this leaves the passenger pigeon as a possible example of a species demonstrating an Allee effect (it's been suggested that it needed a minimum colony size to stimulate breeding)
I find the theory proposed here to be unconvincing, A basic tenet of theory is that the proposed elements and conclusions of the theory must fit the actual observations. While it certainly is plausible that the passenger pigeon may have experienced cycles of population highs and lows there are no observations or accounts, prior to the slaughter, of the species ever having dropped to such vulnerable population lows. To the contrary, the historical observations and accounts prior to the slaughter period indicate that passenger pigeons were always abundant; that even if one were to grant a postulated drop in population from the billions they still existed in the hundreds of millions and gathered in super-abundant mega-flocks. Regardless, more to the point here is that the actual observations and accounts show that the pigeons still existed in super-abundance and gathered in huge mega-flocks at the start of the 3 decade period during which their meteoric decline occurred and continued to gather in mega-flocks throughout this period until the monumental slaughter finally reduced the population to the point where there were no longer enough pigeons left to form such flocks. In other words, this was not the theorized naturally occurring population low that rendered them more vulnerable to a nudge toward extinction by humans.

The 3 decade period which saw the meteoric decline of the passenger pigeon and sealed its fate occurred during the 1860’s into the 1880’s. It was at the beginning of this period (in either 1860 or in one of the few following years) that King observed the astounding mega-flock in Ontario estimated to contain a mind-boggling one billion to 3.7 billion pigeons! This shows that entering into this dark period the species was not in a natural, more vulnerable cyclic population low but instead was still thriving in its super-abundance. Of further significance here is that huge mega-flocks numbering in the hundreds of thousands and millions continued to be observed each year from 1860 into the 1880’s. For example, Greenberg compiled a list (on pages 154-155 in his book) of the known huge colonial nestings (hundreds of thousands to millions of pigeons participated in these) that occurred during this period. This shows that one or more of these super-abundant gatherings are known to have occurred in every year from 1860 to 1882. What is particularly significant about this is that it proves that in each of these years their numbers remained at a high level that allowed them to amass in super-abundant gatherings until the relentless slaughter finally reduced their numbers to the point where this no longer was possible. This means that there were no interim years here where one could postulate that the theorized natural reduction to a vulnerable population low had occurred. In fact, it was during the midst of this period in 1871 that the largest known colonial nesting occurred—this inconceivably massive affair involved millions of pigeons and the nesting grounds spread over an astounding estimated 850 square miles (definitely not indicative of a vulnerable population low!)! What is equally significant about these huge colonial nestings are the accounts of the monumental slaughters that occurred at them. Unprecedented volumes of adults and squabs were killed and taken from these nestings, numbering in the hundreds of thousands to the millions (there was even an estimate, though questionable, of one billion pigeons killed from the second largest known nesting in 1878). The massive slaughters at these colonial nestings (the pigeons’ most important events of the year) were particularly damaging for the passenger pigeon. Because of the massive, relentless assaults on them, time after time they were productively insufficient or wholly unsuccessful and this left the species with no chance whatsoever of keeping pace with the immense annual mortality being inflicted upon it by humans. No avian species, no matter how numerous, can withstand continuous, sustained annual unnatural losses of millions, especially when their breeding attempts are simultaneously being thwarted. It was this documented annual prodigious slaughter that rapidly brought the passenger pigeon to the point where by the 1890’s its numbers were so low that it no longer contained any biologically viable populations; that its population numbers were so low that it was then susceptible to the various stochastic factors that can finish off a species when at such low numbers.

One can theorize all one wants about whether it’s possible that the passenger pigeon was in a natural deep population low of a widely swinging population cycle that made it more vulnerable to human impact but the actual observations and accounts make it clear that this wasn’t the case. The observations and accounts show that during this 3 decade period it was the continuous, relentless, massive slaughter that caused the rapid decline of what was a thriving, super-abundant species (and not a species that was in a natural, vulnerable low in its population cycle—the 1860 King observation of the inconceivably large flock noted above clearly shows that the latter wasn’t the case). One can’t simply toss aside and dismiss the actual observations and accounts (i.e., the empirical observations) in lieu of a theoretical model based on certain assumptions and inferences and the genetic material obtained from a small sample size of just 4 individuals. In regard to the Allee effect, the observations and accounts also show that whether or not it was actually an element of passenger pigeon population dynamics it was not the cause of their extinction (nor are there any serious contentions that it was). Right from the start of their meteoric decline the population was much too large for it to have been a factor in this decline. It wasn’t until the slaughter had critically reduced the population that any potentially deleterious consequences stemming from the Allee effect would have manifested themselves.

The observations and accounts show that there is no need for conjuring up any complicated theoretical models to explain the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Despite the seemingly inconceivable nature of the act, the observations and accounts show that it was just a simple case of overexploitation and slaughter by humans--humans took a sledgehammer to what was a prime, healthy, fully functioning biological machine and smashed it to bits! Rather than complex theories, one need look no further than one of the simplest, most basic principles of vertebrate population dynamics: the relationship between annual recruitment and annual mortality in regard to population size. In order for a population to maintain itself annual recruitment needs to equal or exceed annual mortality. When annual mortality consistently exceeds annual recruitment, the species is in decline. When annual mortality consistently greatly exceeds annual recruitment the decline is precipitous and the species is trending toward extinction--such was the case with the passenger pigeon during this period. A quote from A.W. Schorger, the person who was probably the foremost authority on the passenger pigeon is appropriate here: “All thinking people now realize that man alone was responsible for the extinction of the passenger pigeon so that further discussion of this phase of the subject is unnecessary.”
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Old Friday 7th August 2020, 08:43   #8
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? The point of the paper I noted was to show that the billions of birds observed in the nineteenth century were not normal in the history of the existence of the species. Prior to the arrival of Europeans and the consequent extensive modification of habitat, the bird was less common (but not rare). Just as europeans were responsible for its population explosion, so they undoubtedly caused its subsequent extinction. Sorry if that wasn't clear...
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Old Friday 7th August 2020, 16:55   #9
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Just to correct:
The paper shows that the PP population cycled within the last 1m years, much before humans appeared in North America. It does not suggest or assert that the last population growth was somehow caused by humans.

There are many descriptions of breeding PP in cages. This is against the theory that the PP required large flocks to breed.
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Old Tuesday 11th August 2020, 05:46   #10
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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.
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