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.