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Photo with 29 notes
Plate 62 of The Birds of America by John Audubon, the Passenger Pigeon. You might want to take a minute to read this, because while everyone has heard of the Passenger Pigeon, and its extinction, many don’t know the story, which is as amazing as it is sad. The one startling fact about Passenger Pigeons that all early and mid 19th Century naturalists wrote about were their unimaginable numbers. When Audubon painted this picture there may have been 5 billion -that’s billion with a ‘B’- Passenger Pigeons in the U.S. and Canada. One flock was estimated to have contained more than 3 billion birds. How many is that? If you’ve ever seen a flock of 1000 Starlings, close your eyes and multiply by 3 million. Can’t do it? Imagine a flock of birds so dense it darkens the sky, and takes more than 10 hours to pass by- and they had a cruising speed of 60 MPH, which sounds fast, but isn’t all that much faster than racing pigeons. As the Passenger Pigeon was a bigger bird, and could move more air per wing beat, that speed is entirely plausible. Audubon himself estimated that one flock he saw passed over him at a rate of 200 million birds per hour, a smaller flock at over 100 million birds per hour. There were more Passenger Pigeons in North America than there were people in the entire world at the time.
Less than 80 years later they were extinct. That may seem like a long time to some, but think of it this way- there were people born into a world with uncountable numbers of Passenger Pigeons, who were in their 30s when a slight decline was noticed, and still alive when they were extinct. How did it happen? Like most extinctions the exact cause is up for debate, but commercial hunting- hunting done as a business for profit- which was done on an unthinkable scale, certainly made the population plummet. The dead pigeons were sold as cheap food for the poor and slaves, and when people couldn’t eat anymore they were used as animal feed. They were sent east by the trainload. To get as many birds as possible they were hunted at their densely packed nesting sites, so a single shotgun blast could mortally wound a dozen birds. There’s one contemporary report claiming a hunter averaged more than 40 birds per round. If they were nesting close to water a single punt gun could kill many times that many. Shot birds were so thick on the ground that it was too labor intensive to pick them up individually, so the dead and dying were shoveled into baskets and sacks. Hunting nesting birds, of course, kills two generations of the species, but that didn’t matter because the resource was thought inexhaustible. It wasn’t. Nobody paid much attention when their numbers started to decline. When it was obvious there was a problem laws were passed to prevent commercial hunting, and the hunting of nesting birds, but they weren’t enforced until it was too late. The last known Passenger Pigeon died in 1914.
Photo with 32 notes
Photo with 15 notes
Plate 26 of John Audubon’s The Birds of America, the Carolina Parrot, now commonly called the Carolina Parakeet. Whatever it’s called, it’s extinct, though the reason for its extinction isn’t completely understood. Certainly they were killed in large numbers as crop pests and for their brightly colored plumage, and their habitat was greatly reduced for farmland, but there were still healthy flocks when they were given protected status, healthy enough that there should have been more than enough genetic diversity to ensure a full recovery. There were also large numbers in captivity, and were considered easy to breed. This is a case where many small problems (including things like the spread of the European honeybee, and the introduction of poultry disease to a gregarious flocking bird) may finally have pushed a stressed species to extinction.
It’s an object lesson in taking care when making changes to your environment. Of the six species Audubon painted that have become extinct, the extinction of three of those species, including the Carolina Parakeet, aren’t well understood.
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By request, an Honor Roll of the fallen- John Audubon’s works from from The Birds of America depicting birds that are now extinct. Toll a bell slowly six times if you have one within reach. Let’s hope no others join this horrible list anytime soon-
Plate 26, The Carolina Parrot (Carolina Parakeet)
Plate 62, The Passenger Pigeon
Plate 186, The Pinnated Grous (Grouse) (Only the Heath Hen sub-species is extinct.)
Plate 208, The Esquimaux Curlew (Eskimo Curlew) Technically the Eskimo Curlew is still listed as ‘Critically Endangered,’ but there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of a live bird since 1963, so hope is fading fast. This plate is interesting because it seems to show a dead bird, one of the few Audubon painted, and at the time the population was quite abundant and not in decline- spooky.
Plate 332, The Pied Duck (Labrador Duck)
Plate 341, The Great Auk
Photo with 35 notes
This one is pretty sad, the Carolina Parakeet (that Audubon called the Carolina Parrot.) Once abundant, it’s one of six birds Audubon painted that are now extinct. Slow reproduction, coupled with a large demand for them as pets, as well as farmers killing them as crop pests, wiped them out in the early 20th Century. You can get to a ‘tipping point’ where it’s almost impossible to bring a species back without even knowing it.