E N Q U I
R E R L O C A L N E W S C O V E R A G E
Friday, March 24,
met demise 100 years ago
The Cincinnati Enquirer
road to extinction passed, regrettably enough, through Ohio.
It was cool, 55 degrees, that day 100 years ago on
Sargents, in southern Ohio's Pike County.
Clay Southworth was just 14 years old when he persuaded his
mother to let him take the 12-gauge shotgun and shoot the bird
eating the corn on the family farm.
found the bird perched high in the tree and brought it down
without much damage to its appearance," Press Southworth
would write 68 years later at the age of 82. "When I took
it to the house Mother
exclaimed - "It's a passenger pigeon!'"
Press Southworth shot this passenger pigeon on March 24,
1900, but it would take more than decade for anyone to determine
Mr. Southworth's quarry that day was the last passenger pigeon
recorded from the wild.
The Southworth passenger pigeon survives today as a specimen
the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus; it is called Buttons,
woman who prepared the specimen used black shoe buttons for its
The Ohio Historical Society is using the occasion of the 100
anniversary today to raise the awareness of visitors and school
the spectre of extinction, calling the anniversary an "unfortunate
milestone in history."
And just 14 years later, on Sept. 1, 1914, the last passenger
in the world died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha
was discovered lying on the bottom of her cage at 1 p.m.
Environmentalists and conservation groups all point to the
passenger pigeon and its extinction as a benchmark, as a lesson
perils of arrogance.
Dr. David Olson, a conservation biologist with the World Wildlife
Fund in Washington D.C., says the passenger pigeon was a warning
conservationists about how quickly extinction can occur, especially
hastened by the hand of man.
"Passenger pigeons are a real red flag for us," said
"Their precipitous decline is really alarming. It went in
just a few years
from literally millions to almost none."
Passenger pigeons were a super-abundant bird, perhaps the most
populous bird ever to inhabit the planet and certainly North
America, A.W. Schorger, in his definitive book on the life history
of passenger pigeons (The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History
and Extinction, 1955), estimates its population at 3 to 5 billion
birds before they declined.
Naturalists and artists waxed poetic on the migratory events
passenger pigeons overhead. They darkened the skies, blotting
sun; they were swift, their flight reaching speeds of 60 mph;
passing sounded like thunder. John James Audubon
wrote of traveling in Kentucky in 1813 and watching a flock pass
overhead for three full days.
State legislatures saw no need to protect the species. It seemed
akin to protecting ants. A committee of the Ohio Legislature
in 1857 was
fairly typical when it asserted, "The passenger pigeon needs
So what happened?
The birds were slaughtered. They were killed for food, for their
feathers, for sport. Forests began disappearing, which the vast
depended on for mast - beechnuts and acorns, among other nuts
berries. When their numbers dwindled, the species passed a threshold
from which it could not recover.
It happened quickly. By the 1870s and '80s, they were becoming
scarce, sightings infrequent. It was a species that needed abundance
survive, from its feeding forays to its colonial nesting behavior.
vast numbers, it slipped below a sustainable threshold.
"Passenger pigeons are a great example of where they reached
threshold and they just kept going," said Dr. Olson.
But it is the passenger pigeon's legacy that endures as a
Robert Glotzhober, curator of natural history at the Ohio Historical
Society, said the lesson posited 100 years ago is that we are
tipping the balance towards extinction.
"There's a concern there," said Mr. Glotzhober. "What
will our world be as times goes by and we have more extinctions
and fewer species? Ecologists suggest that the more you simplify
systems of living organisms the less stable they become. That
means you're more likely to have massive die-offs, starvations,
loss of additional species, increase of
pests, all kinds of things. So the greater the diversity, usually
stable. To sustain human life that's what we want, a stable system."
Scientists need to get a handle on where those thresholds exist,
what they might be and what can be done to prevent them from
crossed, said Dr. Olson.
"The broader implication is that there are many other species
are seemingly abundant but may be just as fragile below a certain
said Dr. Olson. "They can quickly decline despite protection
apparently abundant habitat. Neotropical migrant songbirds are
Before the turn of the century it became apparent that passenger
pigeons were far and few between. By the turn of the century,
no sightings. Rewards were offered. By 1910, a standing reward
$1,000, made by individuals, was offered for information leading
nesting pair or colony. The Cincinnati Zoo was offering a $1,000
reward for a male passenger pigeon that would mate with its female
pigeon, Martha. The rewards were never claimed.
While the passenger pigeon could not be saved, the zoo did save
one of its aviaries in 1974. It was where Martha lived.
Built in 1875, the aviary was moved, remodeled and turned into
Passenger Pigeon Memorial. While three mounted specimens and
skin are on display in the memorial, Martha herself is not.
Martha had been promised to the Smithsonian Institution when
died; she was packed in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped
Washington D.C., where she is on display at the Smithsonian's
of Natural History.
Dave Oehler, head of the zoo's aviculture department, said the
memorial, located across from the Cat House, is a place for reflection.
"The building itself is very quiet," said Mr. Oehler.
"It's not only a sobering experience, but you can spend
some time in there and reflect on
what happened. It's a nice, quiet little place to come. Then
you can go
back out and enjoy the wildlife."
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