Two New Exhibitions Commemorate the Last of the Passenger Pigeons
Less than one hundred years after Natty Bumpo gave voice to James Fenimore Cooper’s premonition of the passenger pigeon’s ultimate fate – “This comes of settling a country!” – the once plentiful, native bird was extinct.
The wanton slaughter of the birds, of the kind the novelist observed near Cooperstown, erased them from the planet.
The last passenger pigeon in captivity, “Martha,” died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her body was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was mounted in a display case with the notation, “the last of her species.”
Since then, the extinction of the passenger pigeon has become a symbol of Americans’ fraught relationship with the natural environment, and two regional museums have commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon with new exhibitions.
In Albany, the New York State Museum has mounted The Passenger Pigeon: From Billions to Zero.
On view through January, the exhibition displays mounted specimens and artifacts from the Museum’s history collections, including a shotgun used in pigeon shoots, a net for capturing the birds and a basket for collecting them.
Dr. Jeremy Kirchman, Curator of Birds at the New York State Museum, will present a free lecture, “The Passenger Pigeon: Icon of Extinction,” on Sunday, September 28 at 1 pm in the museum’s Huxley Theater.
“”By commemorating the centennial of the passenger pigeon extinction with this exhibition, we hope to educate more people about the bird and remind them that an extinction is a permanent loss, and that our lives are diminished by that. That bears thinking about as we confront the potential loss of species such as the Bicknells Thrush, the boreal Adirondack bird that is endangered by climate change,” said Kirchman.
“Only a few generations ago, passenger pigeons were so numerous no one could have imagined they would become extinct,” said Kirchman.
Unlike birds that were lost or became endangered by the destruction of habitat, the passenger pigeon was extirpated solely through over-hunting, said Kirchman.
It was a reliable food source for Native Americans. Among the displays in the exhibition at the State Museum are bones of pigeons found in New York State that are 12,000 years old. Samuel De Champlain and Jacque Cartier both commented on its abundance.
“Once an animal becomes a commodity, it’s in trouble,” said Kirchman. “With the bison and cod, we had near misses. But we didn’t stop in time to save the passenger pigeon.”
Kirchman said he’s found records that indicate that 17,000 passenger pigeons were shipped by rail to Plattsburgh on one occasion alone; 11,000 of those were to be used as targets for a sportsmen’s event.
Among the reasons why the passenger pigeon was particularly vulnerable to over-exploitation was its “gregariousness,” said Kirchman.
“These huge flocks would settle in colonies in forests to feed on nuts and berries. That’s where they would also breed. So not only the adults but the offspring were destroyed through hunting,” said Kirchman.
As conservationists became aware that the bird was in danger of extinction, efforts were made to match breeding pairs.
“But it’s not clear that the passenger pigeon could breed except in huge colonies, which means that it would have become extinct even if a few pairs could have been bred in captivity,” said Kirchman. “Once the colonies have been destroyed, the threshold was passed.”
The extinction of the passenger pigeon did, though, lead to the founding of conservation groups and the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, as well laws regulating hunting.
Another exhibition, titled “Eclipse” is on view at MassMOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, through the spring.
An installation that evolved from a series of conversations between Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of “The Sixth Extinction,” and artists Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, Eclipse consists of a massive video projection with screens on the walls and ceiling of MASS MoCA’s four-story atrium. The video loop shows a flock of passenger pigeons in reverse-negative silhouette lifting out of a life-sized tree, accompanied by sound design consisting of layers of digitally processed human voices.