Monday, 7 February 2011

No more passengers...

Just a quick reminder of the folly of humanity and a burst of Joni Mitchell's sentiment that sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone. I have just finished (in 10 days of absorbed reading) "The Neanderthal Parallax", a trilogy of science fiction novels by American author Robert J. Sawyer. I'm not reviewing the books here and I don't wish to provide any spoilers for anyone who wants to read them. Suffice to say, one of the details of the setting is that huge flocks of passenger pigeons are still around due to an interesting plot device - and mammoths and mastodons as it happens, but they're another story.

I learned what extinction of species meant via the obvious examples we all learn as children, i.e. the dinosaurs and the dodo. But my Dad had modern prints of the paintings of the famous French-American artist and naturalist John James Audubon who, in the 19th century, became famous for his amazing paintings of the birds of America, the publication of which is, in itself, a quite remarkable story (for another time perhaps). And it was through those prints that Dad told me the story of the Passenger Pigeon, for Audubon painted this species among many others. The Passenger Pigeon is, however, no more, another extinct species to bring shame on us for our our failed stewardship...

John James Audubon's Passeneger Pigeons
The Passenger Pigeon (Latin name: Ectopistes migratorius) was a native bird of North America that occurred in almost unbelievably large flocks, perhaps up to 2 BILLION individuals at a time. Its migratory movements across North America were recorded by early European settlers as taking place in dense flocks a mile wide that took several HOURS to pass overhead. The sky would literally have been dark with birds.

Bringing safety in numbers against natural predators, such density was to be its downfall when Europeans arrived on the North American continent. A combination of trapping and shooting in huge numbers and, it is now hypothesised, the additive effects of habitat loss from forest clearances along the migration corridors, led to a decline in population size that almost beggars belief. The hunting of passenger pigeons was commercialised principally to provide cheap meat for slaves. The combination of human pressures led to a decline to extinction in the wild by the start of the 20th Century, having been probably the most numerous bird species in the world at the start of the 19th Century. The decline was slow between 1800 and 1870, then catastrophic between 1870 and 1890.

It turned out that the wild population probably became too small to support the communal courting and mating behaviour needed for optimal reproduction. The last authenticated wild bird was seen on March 22nd 1900. Reports of other, unauthenticated, sightings cropped up into the 1930s, but the species really had gone for good.

Unforgiveable folly, heartbreaking loss, irreversible consequences. Extinction really is a one-way trip, whatever the fanciful fiction of Jurassic Park might have suggested. Look at the beautiful painting above by Audubon, of a pair of passenger pigeons, and ask yourself how much you'd give to be able to see a flock of two billion of them today.

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