Extinct Passenger Pigeons on Display

September 1 marks the centennial of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, once the most abundant land bird in North America. Project Passenger Pigeon, a collaboration of scientists, educators, conservationists, artists and filmmakers, will observe the anniversary with a documentary film, a book and a wide range of programs and exhibitions – and use it to call attention to species and habitat preservation. (For details, visit www.passengerpigeon.org)

Nesting pair of Passenger Pigeons in the Vanderbilt Museum’s natural-history gallery
Nesting pair of Passenger Pigeons in the Vanderbilt Museum’s natural-history gallery

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, in its natural-history galleries, has a preserved nesting pair of Passenger Pigeons. Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial affairs, said that William K. Vanderbilt II did not hunt birds and most likely purchased his exhibited birds, including the Passenger Pigeons, from collectors or taxidermists.

According to Project Passenger Pigeon, in 1800 more than five billion Passenger Pigeons crisscrossed the skies of the eastern United States and Canada. Passing flocks could darken the skies for three days. However, with hunters shooting them food and recreation, along with habitat loss, this seemingly inexhaustible resource was depleted in just a few decades.

By 1900 the species was virtually extinct, and by mid-afternoon of September 1, 1914, Martha Washington, the last of her species, died at age 22 in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. She is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution. Project Passenger Pigeon aims to promote the conservation of species and habitat, strengthen the relationship between people and nature, and foster the sustainable use of natural resources.

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