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100 years ago today, the last Passenger Pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha and she never flew as a wild bird. A sad day indeed, as this species numbered in the billions in the mid-1800’s and was almost gone by 1890. Large flocks were reported to take days to fly over as they migrated in the spring from the southern US to the northern midwest states and beyond. They took over large tracts of forests for nesting colonies. It is a sight I would have loved to have seen. I imagine myself standing outside my home (with an umbrella) and watching in amazement at the sheer numbers of birds flying over. They were slaughtered by the millions as the recently-invented telegraph would send out word as to the location of the great flocks and nesting colonies. The carcasses were placed in barrels and shipped to the larger cities for fine dining and other uses.

Even with protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty or the Endangered Species Act, in today’s world, I believe the Passenger Pigeon would have a hard time surviving. We humans like our wildlife counted and orderly these days. There needs to be a “purpose” to these living beings. Do they provide food and nourishment, companionship, livelihood, recreation, or are they beautiful to look at? The Passenger Pigeon, I understand, was a beautiful bird, it could have fit in as a food source, and of course, it could have been very popular for recreational hunting. But it needed to live in large colonies covering miles of wooded areas for nesting, feeding, and roosting. Yes, we could have set aside large tracts of land as parks or refuges but this bird moved yearly to areas of plentiful acorns and beech nuts. This bird would not have tolerated being confined to specific areas. Would we allow this? Would we be grateful that we get to shovel our sidewalks of guano after we witnessed a million-bird flock passing over our house as it migrated to its northern nesting area? One would hope they would navigate around major cities but what if the flock decided to settle in on a foggy night in downtown Chicago. Amongst many other issues, imagine the traffic problems of a million crow-sized birds coming in for a landing, darkening the sky. I don’t think we are this tolerant, we would not have control of this bird that would always come along in large flocks.

As a photographer, I try to imagine what it would be like to photograph the incredible flocks along with individual birds of this species. I would have sat in a photo blind in the middle of a nesting colony, catching “the changing of the guard” as the males came in to relieve the females of the nesting duties and vice versa. I would photograph the squabs as they grew and then eventually drop to the ground where they moved en masse. What would a large, oak tree look like with pigeon nests covering all of the branches. What other wildlife would come through feeding off of this “endless” supply of food?

These are just a few of the thoughts I have. I would have loved to have seen and photographed these incredible flocks of birds and their annual life history. I consider the birds we now have and could lose. I would be devastated if I could not watch the lekking behavior of the Greater Sage Grouse each spring.

No photos available.

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