In the 1700s and 1800s, citizens recount incredible examples of nature’s bounty as migrating flocks of passenger pigeons filled the skies, hundreds of thousands of wings beating in unison. The passenger pigeon gained additional notoriety through the paintings of John James Audubon who, in 1813, reported witnessing a flock of birds so large that it literally blocked the sun and, in total, took three days’ time to pass. The birds lived throughout the eastern United States; their normal range extended West through parts of Montana, South through parts of Texas and North well into Canada. The birds nested in greatest abundance in states including Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Historians have documented evidence of the passenger pigeon’s role as a resource for humans for centuries. Seneca Indians endearingly referred to the birds as “big bread,” and it became a commodity as vast quantities were sent to Midwest and eastern markets as cheap meat for rapidly growing urban centers.
Indeed, their numbers seemed so infinite and inexhaustible, it was shocking to realize that in five short decades, this bird was driven from billions to none. Today, the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction is an important story to tell to underscore the continued need for wildlife conservation.
Stories like the passenger pigeon’s extinction and the dramatic decline of the bald eagle and peregrine falcon prompted our nation, 40 years ago, to establish our country’s bedrock conservation law, the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Yet unlike the passenger pigeon, the peregrine falcon, the bald eagle, the southern sea otter, the grizzly bear and the manatee were all rescued by the ESA safety net and brought back from the brink. In the case of the passenger pigeon, it is safe to say that this once abundant species would be around today if the ESA was in place at the times of its decline.
Unfortunately, the threats that caused the passenger pigeon’s extinction – habitat destruction and development, and cases of excessive hunting – persist today. In addition, climate change poses new threats to endangered species’ survival. Still, a potentially graver threat is the lack of political will among our nation’s leaders to fight to conserve these species. Conservation used to be a value that united Americans, but now opponents are inappropriately using conservation to polarize voters. At times, the fate of the ESA seems as threatened as the species it so effectively shields. While the ESA would have saved the passenger pigeon from extinction, that could well not have been the case if some of today’s misguided proposals for weakening the Act had succeeded.