One afternoon in the mid-1990s, a swarm of black crows invaded our quiet suburban street outside Philadelphia. Thousands of terrifying black birds blanketed the sky and occupied the upper branches of the trees. It was like The Birds, but without the killing.
I remember poking my head out from the porch, less awestruck and more grossed out by this showing. Also, a little offended — how dare these cawing, screeching, dinosaur-looking, poop-dropping little monsters take over our street? People live here.
By 1998, white people had been living on and developing this spit of land for less than 300 years. Animals — and other people that lived in ways much more sympathetic toward animals — had been there far, far longer.
Knowing what I know now about the history of the human-bird relationship, I’m glad the crows just alarmed us from the sky. They would’ve been well within their rights to do far, far worse.
Just take a look at the life and ignominious death of the passenger pigeon.
Passenger pigeons used to be the Kings of the Sky here in the United States. They traveled in packs of millions, often blotting out the sun for days at a time as the miles-long and miles-wide flock flew over. Wherever they made their nests, they filled the trees so thoroughly that branches would break under the weight of the baby birds. They evolved a strategy known as “predator satiation,” where the sheer number of possible prey discouraged predators from attacking. For us, this would be the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, except it’s all crab rangoons, piled high to the ceiling.
That strategy worked to discourage other birds and large animals, allowing passenger pigeons to maintain their dominance in the food chain. But humans, oh, humans — we are not a predator that is so easily satiated. Admit it: crab rangoons piled high to the ceiling seems like an appetizing challenge, doesn’t it?
As the frontiers developed and railroads began to crisscross the Great Plains, humans became increasingly wary of the passenger pigeons. When the flocks would cross over a town, womenfolk ran screaming, priests dropped to their knees, sure the apocalypse was coming, and men grabbed their guns and started shooting into the sky.
Hunters could shoot thousands of pigeons out of the sky without moving their feet. If they found the nesting grounds, that meant thousands of squabs in a single tree. The supply seemed endless, and the meat tasted good.
With the advent of the railroad, this local enterprise became a national industry. Hunters were able to find the passenger pigeons wherever they roosted, decimate the flock and send the game back to the cities in refrigerated train cars invented for just such a purpose.
The birds seemed so numerous, it was hard to imagine humans could even make a dent in their total domination of the skies. But the combination of destroying their nests, destroying their habitats and destroying entire flocks at once was too much. Passenger pigeons never stood a chance.
In 1914, over 100 years ago, the final passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo. All attempts to breed them in captivity failed. Martha suffered from a palsy that made her tremble and had never laid a fertile egg.
The passenger pigeon was extinct, thanks entirely to mankind.
On the upside, Martha’s passing helped change the public consciousness and launch the conservation movement in this country. Republican Congressman John F. Lacey proposed the country’s first wildlife conservation legislation in 1900, according to Audobon magazine.
“The wild pigeon, formerly in flocks of millions, has entirely disappeared from the face of the earth,” Lacey said on the House floor. “We have given an awful exhibition of slaughter and destruction, which may serve as a warning to all mankind. Let us now give an example of wise conservation of what remains of the gifts of nature.”
The death of the passenger pigeon at the very least inspired Americans to try and save other species from the same fate. Bison, for example, were nearly eliminated due to the same forces. In 2016, the bison became the nation’s first national mammal due in part to it’s rebound.
But we haven’t entirely learned our lesson. As development continues across this great land, we drift further and further from the natural resources that were here long before us — the water, the flora, the fauna, the animals.
We cull the deer population and shoot into trees to disperse the crows. We let pigeons languish on city streets. We watch horror movies about murderous birds and never stop to think about the birds that used to live where we do now. We assume that something as big and old as Earth can’t be affected by the actions of its current tenants.
Joel Greenberg, the author of “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” says that’s the lesson we should take from the passenger pigeon.
“If the passenger pigeon can disappear in decades, so can so many other of the planet’s riches, be they biological or not — even if they now seem abundant. And those that are rare can vanish in a heartbeat.”
Sources: https://www.si.edu/spotlight/passenger-pigeon, https://gizmodo.com/how-the-railroad-wiped-out-passenger-pigeons-and-nearl-1496717217, http://www.audubon.org/magazine/may-june-2014/why-passenger-pigeon-went-extinct, http://e360.yale.edu/features/fate_of_the_passenger_pigeon_looms_as_a_somber_warning