Most of us know the sad story of the Passenger Pigeon. Details may be missing, but you are sure to know they are extinct. Today, September 01, 2014 marks 100 years since the last passenger pigeon, Martha, died. Maybe you’ve heard the story of Martha, the last surviving member of her species that lived in the Cincinnati Zoo. It must have been a pitiful site to see this once prolific species with only one, lone pigeon perched on a ledge. Or maybe not, some zoo patrons threw dirt at her because she simply sat perched on a ledge rather than entertaining them. Her coos silenced in a single world. She died on September 1, 1909, leaving us with only pictures. There are a few preserved bodies of passenger pigeons stored in a drawer at a natural museum. Other than that we are left with the stories of this beautiful bird with the hazel colored eye, iridescent wings, and orange breast.
The Passenger Pigeon was believed to be the most abundant bird species in the world, with population estimates at 3-5 billion when Europeans first immigrated to the North American continent. They were once so numerous that a flock was witnessed to be 1 mile wide and 300 miles long. Their flocks so dense they darkened the skies and could take weeks to pass. It is unimaginable that a species so prolific is gone; extinct. Extinguished from earth. I will never be able to experience the beauty of this colorful pigeon. I will never experience skies darkened by flocks flying overhead.
What happened? Habitat loss for one. Europeans continued to immigrate and with the growing population they cleared millions of acres of forest. The pigeon was also used as cheap food for slaves and poor people. But still, it seems impossible that a species so prolific could be annihilated within a couple of hundred years.
The story of the Passenger Pigeon repeats itself. There is Lonesome George, the Pinta Island Tortoise who died in 2012; the last of his species. Before George, there were others: The Tasmanian Devil, the Do-Do bird, and the Falkland Islands Wolf., called the ‘friendly wolf’. The Falkland Islands wolf was easy prey to the men that landed on the island. They wolves were easily lured and men killed them for no reason other than because they were there—-until there were no more to kill.
Extinction has been on my mind of late. There are so many species whose populations are threatened. In the recent past, here in America, there has been the bald eagle and the gray wolf. We can say the endangered species act culled some of the actions driving them to extinction. For now, it has worked. The eagle population is stable. The wolf is back from the brink of extinction, but still reviled and hated by some people, namely, many in the powerful livestock and hunting industries. It is these adversaries that made me think of the wolf’s canine cousin, the coyote.
The coyote? The coyote is one of the most successful species in North America. They aren’t just successful; they have spread across the continent and now live in abundance in regions that was once ruled by the wolf. So why do I think of the coyote in a discussion on extinction? If I were to bring this discussion up with coyote trappers and hunters, or even, with wildlife biologists, likely, I would be ridiculed. However, let’s think about how many coyotes are killed in America every year. I reviewed the USDA Wildlife Service’s ‘kill report for 2012. There were 4, 273 coyotes killed in the state of Oklahoma. Nationally, Wildlife Services killed approximately 75,000 coyotes. This is what was reported, and does not include the number of coyotes killed in the coyote ‘calling’ contests. Legally, coyotes are considered to be ‘varmints’, which means they have no protection. They can killed by any method at any time of the day or night. Most animals are at least afforded a season where they are not hunted, and their are limited numbers of tags hunters can purchase. That supposedly ensures there will be enough animals to kill the next hunting season. Coyotes are not afforded an ‘off season’. There are no legal limits to how many can be killed, how they are killed, or when they are killed. That loops me back to my thoughts on extinction. You think coyote extinction is not feasible? Let’s explore it.
First, never underestimate the power of mankind’s ability to destroy other living beings. Remember the Falkland Island wolf, the ‘friendly wolf’ ? Easy prey. They were killed simply for being present, and were slaughtered until there were no more to kill—slaughtered into extinction. While destroying forest habitat and hunting the Passenger Pigeon for slave food surely contributed to population decline, I have a hard time believing those things alone drove them to extinction. I think their sheer abundance worked against them. Likely, their high numbers made men think they would never kill them all, therefore, hunting them into oblivion. Killing them just to watch them fall from the sky. Killing for entertainment and sport. That is not unlike what is happening to the coyote today. If doubtful, picture a flock of Passenger Pigeons 1 mile wide and 3 miles long. Where are they today? I do not want to be that woman on the other side of the fence that throws dirt on a lone coyote with his song subdued because there are no pack mates to create a chorus. I don’t want to be that woman that watches the final coyote die.