The loss’s anniversary will not go unmourned, with museum exhibits, magazine spreads, conferences, and new books glorifying the species, examining their demise, and drawing lessons for the present. The most comprehensive, Project Passenger Pigeon http://passengerpigeon.org/, seeks to catalyze public concern for biodiversity protection through the pigeon’s tragic example, emphasizing that most contemporary observers refused to believe such an abundant creature could vanish. Even as its end approached, when silences in their roosting trees must have been deafening, the bird was assumed to be indestructible, or humans too inconsequential to impact God’s creation.
Yet a few decades of relentless human effort, abetted by advancing technology, undid the work of eons. Evolved to nest in vast numbers, the noisy flocks inevitably attracted attention. Telegraph messages spread the word, and trains delivered throngs of hunters to harvest nature’s bounty. As long as flocks still flew low and thick, even unskilled hunters could shoot dozens without aiming or knock squabs from their nests with long poles. Professionals also brought nets, capturing thousands flying in for evening rest, and axes, for hacking down trees harboring plump nestlings. Millions of adults and young were too damaged from careless practices to sell. So market hunters killed more, packing boxcars bound for cities where restaurants served pigeons to anyone wishing a taste of the wild. That insatiable, nation-wide demand meant the slaughter continued until the last cars stood empty.
Descriptions of the flying birds--slate blue backs with glints of purple, and coppery bellies--remind me of fish schools, iridescent multitudes that dart and dive under the waves. Once, billions of Atlantic cod, Pacific sardines, bluefin tuna, and other gilled wonders traveled the world’s oceans, unimaginably numerous and unfathomably fertile. Yet global demand and accelerating technologies have inexorably deplete their numbers. Wetland development works like chopping nesting trees, destroying nurseries that could have helped replenish exploited fish populations. Most ominous of all, climate change threatens ancient patterns of fish movements as they feed and seek mating grounds, and imperils the very chemistry of the sea. What will prevent these glorious marine species from sharing the magnificent birds’ fate?
“To love what was is a new thing under the sun,” wrote ecologist and ethicist Aldo Leopold, in his lament for a species he called a “feathered tempest.” Celebrating these lost birds and recognizing their urgent conservation lesson are laudable signs of human progress. But protecting creation requires yet another step, a step of faith and values, to love what is enough to save it. Let us devote ourselves to ensuring that one hundred years hence, finned tempests need no monuments, and oceans still teem with an exuberance of life.