Extinct birds land at ‘Once There Were Billions’ at the National Museum of Natural History


The passenger pigeon. (Images courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Good news! The carrier pigeon is not extinct after all. You may have mourned the bird’s passage and our subsequent reliance on Comcast and Verizon to deliver messages, but as it turns out, the birds are quite abundant.

“The carrier pigeon is just another name for a rock dove — the city pigeons that are everywhere,” says Helen James, head bird curator at the National Museum of Natural History.

The same can’t be said for the passenger pigeon. (“Everyone gets the two species confused because it’s almost the same name,” James says.) The passenger pigeon has been extinct since 1914, when Martha, the last remaining bird, kicked the bucket at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Martha is now on view in the exhibit “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America.” She’ll be accompanied by taxidermy specimens of three other once-commonplace birds: the great auk, Carolina parakeet and heath hen.

“Extinction is not just about rare species in far away tropical mountain ranges in distant times,” James says. “It’s actually happening here, today.”

Passenger Pigeon

Last seen: 1914
Worse Than Cicadas: Passenger pigeons swarmed in huge flocks that blocked out the sun and caused spectators to fear the apocalypse was nigh. The birds’ survival strategy: predator satiation. Animals could only eat so many before getting full.
Target Practice: About twice the size of regular pigeons, passenger pigeons could reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Sportsmen loved to hunt them. The “clay pigeon” was named after them, not the pokey city pigeon.
Dinner Is Served: In less than 50 years, a bird that numbered in the billions went extinct. We ate tons, shot them for sport and feathers, and chopped down their forest habitats.

aukcropped
Great Auk

Last seen: 1844
Picky Breeders: These puffin-like birds, which were around 2 ½ feet tall, only came ashore to breed. They favored rocky islands off the coast of New England, Greenland, Iceland and Scotland.
Super Swimmers: Ungainly on land, these flightless seabirds were amazing acrobats in the water, able to dive as deep as 3,300 feet.
Sitting Ducks: Mariners slaughtered the unwary birds and used them for oil, bait and meat. As they became rare, they were killed and sold to collectors.

parakeet
Carolina Parakeet

Last seen: 1918
Foul-Weather Friends: Unusual for birds of its kind, the Carolina parakeet lived in chilly climates, with a range extending as far north as the Great Lakes and as far west as Nebraska.
Has Anyone Seen Whiskers? With a diet including toxic cocklebur seeds, the Carolina parakeet may have been poisonous. Ornithologist and naturalist John James Audubon observed that cats died after eating the birds.
Murderous Millinery: The birds were hunted for their brilliant feathers, which were used to decorate ladies’ hats. The last Carolina parakeet, Incas, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

heathhen
Heath Hen

Last seen: 1932
Pass the Cranberry Sauce: The Pilgrims may have dined on this chicken-like bird, rather than wild turkey, at the first Thanksgiving.
Same Old Story: Heath hens lived in pine barrens from Virginia to Massachusetts. Habitat loss plus overhunting led to the extinction of these once-plentiful fowl.
Extinct, Then Viral: Film footage of heath hens from 1918 was recently digitized, thrilling fans of the bird. You can find the video online.

woodpecker
Leaving Soon?

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Last seen: 1944
Moby Dick, the Bird: You’d think a 1 ½-foot-tall red, black and white woodpecker would be easy to spot, but Cornell University spent three years scouring remote forests for the species before giving up in 2009.
Your House? My Chair: Rampant logging of virgin hardwood forests in the Southeastern U.S. robbed the woodpecker of its habitat.
Treasure Hunt: An anonymous citizen, via The Nature Conservancy, once offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could lead field biologists to the bird.

National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through October 2015, free; 202-633-1000. (Smithsonian)

More stories about animals in D.C.:

There’s more to wildlife in D.C. than street rats

Bao Bao’s going to be big in 2014

Rusty vs. Bao Bao in song

Sadie Dingfelder will write about anything, but she especially loves art, science, wildlife and quirky people.
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Marc Silver · June 26, 2014