Nature in Freefall

Editor’s Note

Why is there a picture of a dead pigeon on the front page? Why not a tiger, a gorilla or another charismatic mammal from the endangered list? A corpse is morbid. And this one of a passenger pigeon all the more so, because – as zoologist Darren Irwin describes in the column to the right – the Europeans who arrived in North America hunted the exceptionally populous species into extinction a century ago.

But disturbing as the story behind the image is, anthropogenic extinction is not the only thing that this dead bird represents. The shocking loss of the passenger pigeon has been cited as something that propelled the growth of the modern conservation movement, which is characterized by the acknowledgement that human action has a direct impact on the environment, and that we have an obligation to protect and conserve it, guided by science.

There are contemporary accounts from the 1800s that describe skies darkened by massive flocks of passenger pigeons and filled with the thunderous sound of their beating wings. To go from such an awesome spectacle to hardly a sign of one in the wild within one human generation must have been a wake-up call. Earth’s last known passenger pigeon, Martha, who was kept in captivity, was a public phenomenon, attracting both curiosity and concern.

About 30 years after Martha dropped off her perch at the Cincinnati Zoo, wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote in a popular essay: “Our grandfathers, who saw the glory of the fluttering hosts, were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered our lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.”

Martha was preserved and has been displayed in museums for most of the time ever since – a sad reminder of the consequences of human excess. The rapid demise of her kind led to laws that have enjoyed some success in averting the loss of other species at risk.

But despite the growth of the conservation movement and increasing public awareness, current efforts are not adequate enough to offset our ever-growing consumption of resources, our wastefulness, and our pollution. The landmark IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released this year describes a natural world in freefall, with around one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction. The top five causes all relate to human activity, from how we use our lands and oceans to the introduction of invasive species. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” says Sir Robert Watson, IPBES chair.

As dire as the warning is, it is accompanied by a loud and clear message that it isn’t too late to contain the downwards trajectory, but it will take transformative social change. With the stability of Earth’s ecosystems at stake, conservationists are calling for bold and urgent action, and the enactment of novel evidence-based strategies to prevent the loss of biodiversity. You can read about some of them in this issue.

As the passenger pigeon slips out of living memory, let’s not dwell on what we’ve lost, but instead focus all of our energy on those species that can still be saved.

Vanessa Clarke



  1. Vic Steblin says:

    Humans must control our numbers with kindness.
    About one billion would be wonderful for the planet,
    leaving lots of resources for everything.

  2. Vic Steblin says re planet human population, “about one billion would be wonderful …”. Isn’t our population already well past that!!?
    Re: conservation issues, politicians talk ‘by 2040, 2050, we will ….” (comment on conservation item) OMG, living where I do, my neighbours & me, already experience since at least 2014, higher winter ‘king tides'(KT) – have ”taken out” close to high tide level growing conifer trees and each winter KTs gradually eroding beach garden I developed on ‘beach area’ front of my property – Arbutus seedling, started 2001 (rosette of leaves) now 15 feet5M leaning north by prevailing south wind was ><15' from HT line. Also, we have deep lifelong interest in mountains – hiking, climbing, skiing & geology, especially Howe Sound. Don't tell us that rising water level in Howe Sound is not result ''melting upland glaciers'' (ice) releasing water to flow to closest ocean water. This process has always taken place due to slow pace of climate change. We see it today over much shorter time period – few years – exacerbated by human intervention – their rapid 20th century population increase and by their develop- ment ''awesome uses'' fossil fuels – coal & oil/gas. These 'chemically organic' materials when transformed by heat or chemically, by humans, ''break'' into their original chemicals – CO2, C + other elements. Their immense excess are now atmospheric pollutants that is increasing the natural flow of climate change. A rapid climate change that could destroy life as we know it – and possibily also ourselves. At my age (96 yrs -UBC grad BA'45 – Science Zoology – MA '47 Zoology/Agriculture Animal & Poultry (BSc degree not estab.) I won't be hit by changes. My family will!!
    We humans must change our ''ways'' – NOW; not 2040 or 2050. We are already on the ''count down.'' Some Indolesian islands already ''under water'' Canada continues Old Ways – extracting fossil fuels – building pipelines to transport – export. Excuse – ''we need those jobs''. Is Canada willing to sacrifise Planet Earth for a few thousand jobs?
    If Canada wants ''to lead'' all our governments, from municipal to federal must unify thrust to get world's attention to have ''Change by '30'' well under way !!
    Hey! My gen. was mobilizad for WWII by our parents gen by mid 1940 (<one year). They were mobilized for WWI

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