Monday, September 1, 2014

Remembering Martha

Submitted by Brian Stewart. 
The Eye welcomes signed submissions. 
Today is the 100th anniversary of the passing of Martha, the last passenger pigeon. Martha was the last one of a species that was once probably the most numerous bird in the world, and possibly the most numerous bird that ever lived. I think it worthwhile to spend a while learning about these amazing birds and pondering their demise and its implications. A superb editorial appeared yesterday in the New York Times; I recommend it highly.
Martha in 1914
from Wikipedia, "Martha (pigeon)"

Passenger pigeons were much larger than the mourning dove they otherwise resembled. They fed on tree nuts such as beechnuts, acorns, and chestnuts. Highly social birds, they flew in vast flocks at speeds as high as 60 miles per hour. They ranged widely east of the Rockies, and their flocks darkened 19th-century skies, especially in the midwest. The enormity of these flocks is difficult for us to grasp now, as it was even at the time. In his 1831 Ornithological Biography, John J. Audubon wrote
The multitudes of Wild Pigeons in our woods are astonishing. Indeed, after having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact. Yet I have seen it all, and that too in the company of persons who, like myself, were struck with amazement.
 He went on to detail these enormous flocks:
The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.
Audubon went on to estimate that a flock might contain over a billion birds. Indeed, the largest flock of these birds was described in 1855 as being a mile wide and 300 miles long, and estimated to consist of 3.5 billion birds, undoubtedly a significant fraction of their entire population at the time.

You will not be surprised to learn that these birds were a force of nature. Nesting flocks could cover hundreds of square miles and contain over a hundred million individuals. They were obliged to roost on top of one another when migrating, and even heavy tree branches broke under their weight. There could be a foot of dung beneath roost trees. Needless to say, the forest ecosystem was altered by their presence, and it is thought that white oaks gave way to red oaks as the dominant oak species in the eastern forest at least in part because of the loss of their presence.

By 1870, their population was in steep decline. Such huge populations undoubtedly fluctuated even without human intervention, but habitat loss as forests were cleared for farming, combined with the mechanized slaughter of these birds, was their undoing. The slaughter was vast in proportion to the size of the flocks. When migrating flocks passed, entire towns would eat only pigeon meat for weeks. Hogs would be fattened on them, and barrels stuffed with them would be shipped by rail to the cities. The Wikipedia article on these birds documents the ingenuity and ferocity with which the birds were exterminated by a public that could not imagine the threat it posed to the birds.

The decline turned catastrophic between 1870 and 1890, so that by the turn of the 20th century, there were none left at all in the wild. There was no Endangered Species Act to protect them; early efforts to stop the slaughter were met with skepticism that so numerous a bird could possibly be threatened. By the time their plummeting numbers resulted in genuine efforts at their conservation, their numbers had fallen too low for them to reproduce. By 1900 only a few birds remained in captivity, and in 1914 Martha died of old age in the Cincinatti Zoo.

The loss of the passenger pigeon played a role in the establishment of the conservation movement around the turn of the 20th century, a movement that culminated in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Yet we learn our lesson only slowly and incompletely. It took Rachel Carson's 1962 Silent Spring to prompt action to protect birds from the DDT that weakened the shells of their eggs. The 1972 Clean Water Act led to a partial restoration of the nations polluted rivers, including our Connecticut River. More recently, we have dug up our streets to separate the storm drains from the sanitary sewers to reduce the risk of raw sewage ending up in the river and Long Island Sound. Our conservation efforts are partially offset by our growing impact, and there is more work to be done.

But some now argue that we cannot afford these protections of the natural world. In one sense they are probably right: as our impact increases, and once-plentiful resources become harder to secure, the remaining ones become more expensive. If we insist on steadily rising consumption as our measure of quality of life, the only way forward will be to weaken protections for the natural world so that all natural resources can go the way of the passenger pigeon. And then we will go, too.

River swallows flocking in the lower
Connecticut River, 8/26/2014
I note that the same interests that argue we must weaken protections for the natural world often also argue that resources, particularly fossil fuels and minerals, are effectively limitless. That might be true in a way, but only if we are willing to sacrifice everything to get them. We have ocean drilling platforms that operate in a mile of water and drill another five miles because the "low-hanging fruit" of shallow, land-based petroleum reserves has been throughly exploited. And the risk attending such operations has been clear since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Fracking and other innovative methods to secure energy are evidence of our ingenuity but also of our insatiable need in the face of depleting resources.

I will end on an upbeat note. Those wishing to observe vast flocks of migrating birds should consider visiting the lower Connecticut River in the coming few weeks. There you can see huge flocks of migrating river swallows. These flocks consist of more than a hundred thousand individuals; their majestic swooping flight as they gather in the reeds at dusk is breathtaking. They are visible only from the river; one very pleasant way to see them is to book a three-hour cruise with Connecticut River Expeditions.

It is hard to know what to preserve if we do not know what we have.


Anonymous said...

Brian, thank you for posting this. It is written in plain language that everyone can understand and it is of importance to everyone who appreciates wildlife.

Rani Arbo said...

Beatufiully written, Brian. Thank you. Hoping to paddle out and see those swallows this year for the first time.

Anonymous said...

Many species are troubled and threatened with extinction and/or local extirpation. Some are Connecticut natives. Please, come to hear the news about CT DEEP's update to our State Wildlife Action Plan. Learn how you can help and what you can do to provide input on September 30th, at 7 pm at the deKoven House, 27 Washington Street. Wildlife biologist, Julie Victoria, with more than 30 years of DEEP Wildlife experience, will speak and present the background session. Your voice matters! More info at or