Once the most abundant bird in North America, passenger pigeons were driven to extinction during the 19th century. Passenger pigeon expert Joel Greenberg will be sharing their cautionary tale at the Heard Museum in McKinney on Aug. 12.

 July 22, 2014

By Minnie Payne

According to author and naturalist Joel Greenberg, as late as 1860, there were probably over a billion passenger pigeons – so many that John James Audubon reported a flight darkening the sky for three days. Just 40 years later, the last wild birds were gone. They were killed in many ways, but were primarily shot and netted. 

“People would put the dead birds in barrels and send them to the cities where they were sold as cheap food,” Greenberg said.  

Right, Author Joel Greenberg, shown beside his passenger pigeon specimen Heinrich.

This year, Project Passenger Pigeon marks the centenary of the passenger pigeon's extinction. Starting Aug. 1 through Oct. 31, Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney participates in the nationwide program in an effort to bring the subject of conservation to light through informative and interactive exhibit installations and presentations. 

Michelle Dudas, natural sciences curator for the museum, says that a mounted stuffed specimen will be on display, with interpretive panels. There will be a walk-through exhibit and children’s activities that include having them build a flock of paper pigeons.  

On Aug. 12, at 7 p.m., Greenberg will bring the story of the passenger pigeon to life at the Heard Museum and speak about his new book, A Feather River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Limited tickets will be available for $10, beginning Aug. 4.

Greenberg shares that he has been interested in animals all his life and an avid birder since 1966. Early on, he was captivated by passenger pigeon tragedy. 

“The story of this bird has intrigued me for decades, for there are elements that would strain credulity had there not been so many witnesses spanning three centuries and writing in at least five languages,” says Greenberg.

More recently, he has become interested in historical natural history, which is basically looking to see how plants have changed over time.

“When you look at the northern half of the United States, the passenger pigeon shows how rich the forests of this area were,” he says. “To have a bird population almost in the millions, there was ample food to support it. I suppose that’s the thing that caught my eye.

The story of how the most abundant bird to ever exist on this planet disappeared in so little time is unique in the annals of human experience, he said. 

“Not merely a footnote in history, this tale of profligate slaughter and the use and abuse of what was considered an infinite resource holds important lessons to those who reside in the early 21st century.”

On Sept. 1, 1914, the last of the species died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Presently, there are probably 1,500 to 2,000 stuffed passenger pigeons in the world. The loss of the pigeons, along with Bison and other animals, in the 1900s led to the conservation law.  

Right, adult passenger pigeon, painting by L. A. Fuertes.

Greenberg says that because the bird was not studied while alive, it is difficult to know exactly what effect it might have had on the ecosystem, but we do know that they helped keep Lyme Disease low. The underlying germ for Lyme Disease lives in mice, and mice like nuts. So did passenger pigeons, so they competed with mice for food, thereby keeping the frequency of Lyme Disease low.  

“No matter how common something is – it could be water, oil, etc. – if we, as human beings, are not good stewards, it can become extinct in a very short time,” Greenberg notes. “It behooves us to be careful and cautious as to how we use our resources.”  

 Minnie Payne is a Carrollton-based freelance writer. She’s written for Pegasus News, Frisco Style Magazine and Seedstock. She presently freelances for Living Magazine, The Senior Voice and Your Speakeasy. She can be reached at jdpmap@verizon.net.

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Comments (2)

  • anon
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Excellent article. Interesting to learn about the pigeon extinction story and book author's appearance at the Heard.
    Kathy Keith

    Jul 26, 2014
  • anon
    Anonymous (not verified)

    Wow, had no idea how many pigeons there once were. What a shame. They could have helped prevent Lyme Disease in humans too.

    Jul 30, 2014