On Sept. 1, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History marked the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon.
Less than 150 years ago, billions of passenger pigeons flew in the skies of North America. Within 50 years, the population dropped to zero. While the exhibit is small — with three passenger pigeons, a nest and an egg — the display commemorates an extinction that sparked the understanding of human impact on ecological systems and initiated many conservation movements, said Richard Prum, a Peabody curator and professor of ornithology.
“This story is such an iconic example of extinction and human interference with the environment that it definitely falls within the mission of the Peabody. It’s an unfortunate story, but a perfect story for the mission of the museum,” said Richard Kissel, director of public programs at Peabody.
Passenger pigeons flew in large colonies and had a high percentage of fat before migrating, making them vulnerable and appealing to hunters, Prum said. Females also only laid one egg at a time, a reproductive pace that could not overcome the overhunting and loss of habitat that led to their extinction. Prum added that he thinks the public’s lack of interest in the pigeon’s final years prevented the species from being saved.
The ultimate extinction struck a chord in the public mind, including that of U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, who worked to create the National Park Service.
“The story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon resonates in many important ways,” Prum said. “First, it is a very American story. It was one of the most abundant birds on the planet and rivals that of the migration of the buffalo in spectacle. So, the notion that we could so drastically effect the ecosystem and drive the most abundant species of bird extinct is something we still need to be aware of.”
Society still has not learned from the lesson of the passenger pigeon, Prum said, citing endangered species of a Midwest bird whose habitat has been violated by fossil fuel extraction. Experts have extracted passenger pigeon DNA in an attempt to clone the species. Peabody curator Kristof Zyskowski said that while it is possible that birds resembling passenger pigeons could be cloned within years, it is unlikely they would have the same behavioral traits as the original passenger pigeons.
The Peabody’s commemoration is not a unique effort: This fall, museums nationwide are participating in the anniversary as part of the Project Passenger Pigeon. The Smithsonian is currently displaying Martha, who was the last living passenger pigeon.
Many of the specimens in the Peabody exhibit come from Connecticut and greater New England. Exposing the specimens to various forms of light in the display risks degrading some feather pigments, a calculated risk the museum is taking for the next few months, Zyskowski said. After the exhibit, the specimens will return to storage in total darkness.
On Oct. 11, the Franke Program in Science and Humanities will host a symposium entitled “Extinction: Biology, Culture and our Futures,” featuring lectures from outside experts. The symposium will finish in Woolsey Hall with a Yale Symphony Orchestra performance of the “The Columbiad,” or Migration of American Wild Passenger Pigeons (1858). The piece, written by American composer Anthony Philip Heinrich after observing the migration of passenger pigeons, has only been performed once before. The music attempts to imitate the sounds of the passenger pigeon’s wings, Zyskowski said.
The exhibit is on display until Sept. 30.