The Very Last Passenger Pigeon

There will always be pigeons in books and museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and all delights. They know no urge of the seasons, they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather.” Aldo Leopold

The very last passenger pigeon, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The species went extinct due to man’s over-exploitation, and the skies remain forever void of the billions of birds that once flew freely. This extinction helped spark the creation of conservation laws that curtail and regulate the type of hunting that caused their demise.

Species extinction is analogous to a machine losing pieces. The machine can keep running for a while, even if it is missing a bolt, washer, or other seemingly nonessential part. But if parts keep falling off, how long can it go on functioning?

That is what is happening on earth. Small parts of our working ecosystems are being lost. How long can all the systems that support life continue to operate, while losing pieces? This analogy can also be used to describe the effects when an endangered species is able to recover. If we save all the pieces, we can make the machine work again.

Several factors have contributed to successes with endangered species. Habitat preservation and reconstruction are essential. Changes in human behaviors and attitudes toward these species often are necessary for successful reintroductions. Laws now protect deer, turkey, geese, and beaver. They cannot be harvested during their breeding seasons and limits are set on the numbers taken during hunting and trapping seasons. Large predators are no longer thought of as vermin.

Classroom Connections

Courtesy Mike Meetz.

Read “On a Monument to a Pigeon” (PDF) from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, where Leopold writes of the extinct passenger pigeon. This essay conveys a sense of the importance of trying to save endangered species. It may inspire students to write their own essays on how they would feel if a species now endangered became extinct. Endangered means there’s still time, extinct is forever.

Have students research species of wildlife extirpated from Iowa. Which ones have returned or been reintroduced?

Check out these great activities while studying threatened and endangered species:

Project WILD

  • Back from the Brink – students are given background information on the recovery of wildlife species, and they are asked to analyze the issues and make recommendations for their resolution
  • Here Today, Gone Tomorrow – students become familiar with the various designations of animals such as threatened, rare and endangered; conduct research; and make a master list of threatened and endangered animals locally or nationally, including factors that affect the animals’ condition
  • Too Close for Comfort – human behavior in shared habitats with wildlife

Aquatic WILD

  • A Whale of an Issue – evaluate the possible impact of wildlife issues on alliances and other relationships between and among nations
  • Aquatic Roots – categorize local aquatic plants and animals and evaluate the appropriateness of introducing new species
  • Migration Headache – list limiting factors affecting habitats and populations of migrating waterbirds, predict the effects of these limiting factors and describe the effects of habitat loss and degradation of populations of migrating waterbirds

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