Monday, September 1, marks an important day in history. On that day 100 years ago the passenger pigeon went extinct. To commemorate the event WQED will broadcast From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction on Sunday September 7 at 3:00pm.
As told by Joel Greenberg, author of The Feathered River Across the Sky, the story is compelling, powerful, and heartbreaking.
At the height of its population there were 3-5 billion passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) in North America, roughly equivalent to the number of birds that overwinter in the United States every year.
Their extinction was shocking in its swiftness. In Wisconsin it took only 28 years — from the largest communal nesting ever recorded, 136 million birds in 1871, to the last wild bird shot dead in 1899.
Humans caused the extinction. Aided by new technology (trains and telegraphs) and in the absence of hunting laws, there was uncontrolled killing at the communal nesting grounds. By the late 1870’s there were signs of great decline. Advocates pleaded for hunting controls but across the U.S. businessmen who traded the birds as meat and legislators successfully argued against protection.
History repeats itself today. The documentary describes how cod nearly went extinct when fishing technology improved and how cod fishing was banned, yet after 20 years the population has not rebounded. Today, sharks and one out of eight bird species are in trouble.
But the program also gives us hope. When we stopped killing whales and sandhill cranes, they rebounded. We banned DDT and brought back bald eagles and peregrine falcons. If we put forth the effort we can choose to preserve.
Watch From Billions to None on Sunday September 7 at 3:00pm on WQED. Then stay tuned for a related program at 4:00pm, The Lost Bird Project (reviewed here).
Thanks to our friends at the National Aviary for underwriting both programs.
(plate by Louis Agassiz Fuertes from a volume of articles, The Passenger Pigeon, 1907 (Mershon, editor), in public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)