2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War, one of the most devastating conflicts in history. It is right and proper that it should be marked by all of us with due solemnity and compassion. For conservationists, 2014 marks another centenary. On 1st September 1914 the very last passenger pigeon on Earth died in the Cincinnati Zoo in the United States. Tragedy comes in all shapes and sizes.

The bird was named Martha and she had been sent to the Zoo from the University of Chicago where she was hatched in 1902. She was part of a captive breeding colony which descended from a single pair brought to the University in the late 19th century. Despite the best efforts of the zoo and the university, it is likely that the genetic foundation of the population was simply too narrow, so it was never going to be viable in the long term. Martha is now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. There are many hundreds like her in museums and universities throughout the world.

The loss of any species to an avoidable extinction event is a tragedy. What makes the passenger pigeon story appalling and frustrating is that at the end of the 18th century, when Eastern North America was first colonised by European immigrants, the passenger pigeon may well have been the single most abundant species of bird on our planet.

The early descriptions of the size of migrating flocks over the forests and plains of the newly colonised continent simply defy belief. ‘Blackening the skies’, ‘taking three days for flocks to pass’, ‘breaking branches as they tried to roost collectively’, ‘breeding colonies stretching over hundreds of square miles’ all feature. It is estimated that there were more passenger pigeons in North America in winter than all other birds combined; an estimated population of 3 to 5 billion birds seems a good guess.

So what on earth could have happened to exterminate such a species within 200 years of its discovery? The answer, of course, is a familiar one. We did it. We pursued them with a relentless, wasteful savagery and lack of compassion that shames us. The rarer the birds became the more effort we put into finding them and killing them. We shot them on migration, we pursued them to the nesting colonies to smash the nests, take the squabs and kill any incubating adults.

And then, one day, there weren’t any. We looked around for reasons and decided it must be because of a hypervirulent disease; or a failure of the beech woods to provide enough food; or maybe, because they were pigeons and therefore, by definition, stupid, that they were already on an evolutionary track to extinction. Anything to hide from the awful truth about our own greed and wastefulness. But the truth will out, and the fact that the Eskimo curlew and Labrador duck went the same way, and from the same causes, and the American golden plover had a very narrow escape, showed that it was nothing to do with their being pigeons.

So, could something like this ever happen again? You bet.

If you saw the videos of the huge flocks of migratory Amur falcons, heading from Russia to Africa, being trapped and grotesquely slaughtered in India then you’ll know that the spirit of the passenger pigeon hunters is alive and well. And don’t think it is something that just happens in countries that are poor and far away. The bestial savagery of, for example,  Maltese bird hunters and Cypriot ‘bird limers’, and the cynical use of poison baits on English moorlands, shows that it’s still very much here and now in the heart of Europe.

Of course, it’s not all bad. There have been tremendous successes, creating new bird habitats and restoring species like red kites, cranes and white-tailed eagles to their rightful places. We know enough now to be able to identify those species for which an early intervention, and the use of intensive management techniques, can make all the difference when it comes to survival. The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust has used the husbandry skills of its staff to support the reintroduction of cirl buntings into Cornwall and to provide Socorro doves (another pigeon, very similar in size and appearance to the passenger pigeon) for reintroduction to their Pacific island home, where they became extinct half a century ago.

So, this September, spare a thought for that little bundle of feathers in the Smithsonian Institution. And believe that there are people out there working very hard to make sure that it can never happen again; just as we hope that we will never again see a conflict like the First World War.

Simon Tonge – Executive Director at Paignton Zoo Environmental Park

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