You may have seen some talk about the passenger pigeon lately with the 100th anniversary of its extinction nearing. But we don't always regard pigeons too kindly these days. If you live in a major city, you probably see them as a nuisance or even call them "rats with wings." Or maybe the only good memories you have of pigeons come from pop culture, such as the kind "Pigeon Lady" from "Home Alone 2" or the wiseguy birds that hung out on a statue of Martin Scorsese on "Animaniacs."
However, pigeons are more important to our nation's culture and history than you may think, not only in our past but also in our future. Here's what you need to know about the bird that has people talking.
What is a passenger pigeon?
The passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was believed to be the most abundant bird in North America, with an estimated population of three to five billion at the time the Europeans discovered America. The naturalist John James Audobon once wrote that the bird was so populous that a flock of passenger pigeons filled the sky, blocking out the light of the sun. The bird was found only in North America, mainly east of the Rocky Mountains. Passenger pigeons nested in large numbers, which allowed them to fend off predators and maintain their huge population. Its closest relative is the mourning dove, which has a smaller size and feathers that are duller in color.
What happened to the passenger pigeon?
The fate of the passenger pigeon is remembered as a dark moment in U.S. ecological history. With no laws prohibiting or limiting the hunting of passenger pigeons, people began catching and shooting the birds to sell in city markets in the 1800s. Banding together in large numbers, which had helped protect the passenger pigeon before, made it easy for hunters to catch the birds. Legislation was passed in Michigan to protect the species in the late 1800s, but by then it was too late. The species became extinct in the wild by the end of the 19th century.
Why is everyone talking about the passenger pigeon now?
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the last known passenger pigeon. Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens on Sept. 1, 1914. She never lived in the wild and lived alone in a cage during her last days. You can still see Martha today, taxidermied, on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History until October 2015.
Why is this a big deal?
The history of Martha and the passenger pigeon is a haunting reminder of the need for conservation legislation. The lack of regulation of the hunting of passenger pigeons led to the species' demise in the early 20th century. Many are using the anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon as a way of reminding lawmakers and the general public alike of the importance of protecting wildlife and nature in danger of disappearing today. A group of 140 conservation organizations has even signed a letter requesting President Obama issue a presidential proclamation commemorating this anniversary to remind Americans of the passenger pigeon's extinction.
Could the passenger pigeon ever return?
A group of scientists is working to bring back the passenger pigeon from extinction by using the species' DNA from museum specimens and from living band-tailed pigeons in a process known as de-extinction. This "reconstituted genome" would then be put into a band-tailed pigeon stem cell where it would transform into a germ cell, and then scientists would inject band-tailed pigeons with the germ cell. When the birds mate, the genes of their children would theoretically come as close to that of the passenger pigeon as possible.
It would take about 10 years before scientists can breed a large enough flock to be released into the wild. However, some researchers are skeptical that the species will be able to survive in the wild, due to the changes in their natural habitat and too few birds to allow their mass nesting system to work.