How can we visualize the number 5 billion, especially when it comes to thinking about a wildlife species?
Worldwide, it’s hard to find a species, outside the insect world, with a population equivalent to 5 billion. But during the Civil War, there were that many passenger pigeons in the skies, making it the most abundant bird in North America. And yet, by 1914, the bird was gone forever.
Sept. 1 marked the 100-year anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction. It was on that day 100 years ago that the last of the species — “Martha,” named after George Washington’s wife — took her last breath.
With Martha’s death a species that once dominated the skies over America disappeared forever. And although this sad tale seems long ago, the same factors that caused the passenger pigeons’ demise continue to imperil our native wildlife species today.
In the 1700s and 1800s, citizens regularly recount seeing massive migrating flocks of passenger pigeons — millions of wings beating in unison. In 1813, famous naturalist John James Audubon witnessed a flock of birds so large he said it blocked the sun and took a total of three days to pass by.
But unregulated hunting and development throughout the birds’ critical nesting grounds depleted the bounty of passenger pigeons faster than the birds could reproduce. And, by 1890, they were nearly gone, with only a few small flocks still alive in the wild.
By 1910, Martha was the only one left, living in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo, the last surviving relic of a vanished species.
Unfortunately, as the birds declined in the late 1890s, Americans were only just beginning to understand the impact that our westward expansion would have on the natural world. We were not monitoring the passenger pigeons’ numbers and there were no mechanisms for protecting the bird and balancing consumption with conservation.
Although the birds’ extinction has left a haunting mark on American history, there is a silver lining to this tragic tale.
The disappearance of passenger pigeons spurred an awakening and awareness about the value of preserving wildlife in our country. Indeed, I would argue that it was the passenger pigeons’ extinction, and later the rapid decline of species such as the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle, that led directly to Americans’ current commitment to wildlife conservation.
By the 1970s, this country had concluded that we should never again be responsible for the extinction of a native wildlife species. That is why Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, our nation’s most important safety net for imperiled animals and plants on the brink of extinction. Though the ESA came too late to protect the passenger pigeon and Martha, it has effectively shielded thousands of species from their same fate. Thankfully today, gray wolves, Humpback whales, Southern sea otters, Florida manatees, peregrine falcons, and Florida panthers still walk this planet precisely because we vowed to protect them through the ESA.
Though long gone, Martha’s story continues to teach us an important and urgent message. It serves as an ongoing reminder that we must work together as a nation to protect our imperiled wildlife and the important law that assures those protections.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. Clark wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.