Cautionary tale: Beloit exhibit chronicles loss of passenger pigeon

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, August 30, 2014

BELOIT—A young man named S.W. Willard preserved a pair of passenger pigeons with arsenic in the 1880s and mounted them on a perch.

All these years later, they have lost the luster of their ruddy chest feathers and the bluish-gray of their tapered wings. Their red eyes have dimmed to brown, and the male's head awkwardly angles away from his mate.

Still, Dan Bartlett hopes the ghost birds will teach and inspire.

Willard's parents donated the specimens to Beloit Collage in about 1890.

Now, they highlight a new exhibit telling a heartbreaking tale of extinction.

“I have a strong emotional reaction looking at them,” Bartlett said. “I feel a sense of responsibility in their extinction, even though it happened long before I was born.”

Bartlett is co-coordinator of the Passenger Pigeon Project at the college, which is hosting lectures about the bird in September and October.

“I hope people will look at the birds and think about other animals headed down the same path,” said Bartlett, who also is a curator at the Logan Museum of Anthropology.

The exhibit is at the museum and can be viewed during normal hours.

The evocative display is among lectures, readings and film screenings in Beloit to mark the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon's extinction.

On Sept. 1, 1914, the last known passenger pigeon alive died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha.

People who remembered the great flocks that darkened the skies for days could not believe the species was gone forever.

Uncontrolled slaughter of the birds for food and recreation, coupled with habitat loss, reduced the passenger pigeon from billions to none in just a few decades.

Even now, the most dramatic extinction of the continent is tough to understand.

The numbers alone are mind boggling.

In the early to mid-19th century, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America and maybe in the world. Up to 5 billion lived in the Midwest and eastern United States, representing one in every four birds.

“If you strung the birds out in a row, they would circle the Earth at the equator 23 times,” said Stan Temple, who spent his career working with endangered species, especially birds.

He is a retired professor of wildlife ecology at UW-Madison and held the academic position once occupied by renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold. Temple has spoken more than 70 times since January about the bird's sad history.

“People who called themselves 'pigeoners' killed the birds at an almost unbelievable rate after the Civil War to 1900,” he explained.

Before the mid-19th century, hunters shot the birds for local use. Later, technology created a national market and prompted industrial-scale killing.

Pigeoners used the telegraph to learn where the birds were roosting and nesting in great numbers. They hunted them by the millions and sent them by packed railroad cars to hungry markets in the East and Midwest.

In one Midwestern location, tens of millions of birds and their young were killed in little more than a month and shipped to Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis, Temple said.

Wisconsin was an intimate part of the story.

The largest recorded nesting of passenger pigeons occurred in central Wisconsin in 1871. The main area spread across 850 square miles in a triangle from Black River Falls to Wisconsin Rapids to Wisconsin Dells. Population estimates conservatively put the number at 136 million.

Less than 30 years later in 1899, a hunter shot the last documented passenger pigeon in Wisconsin near Babcock.

Among the last records of the bird is one from Walworth County. On Sept. 8, 1896, C.E. Golder shot an immature male near Delavan Lake.

Temple calls the passenger pigeon's story a cautionary tale with lessons for today.

Many scientists, including Temple, believe humans are causing the sixth mass extinction of species in the Earth's history.

“Even common species can be lost,” Temple said. “You would think we have learned that lesson in the 21st century, but human-caused extinctions continue to occur at an unprecedented rate.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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