The History of Passenger Pigeons and the Lessons We've Learned From Their Extinction

No Last-minute Rescue

From a modern perspective, it's hard to imagine how the extinction happened. As numbers decreased, why weren't laws passed to protect the pigeons? Why weren't captive birds bred to save the species?

But these were very different times, long before the Endangered Species Act and long before zoos routinely bred animals even for exhibition purposes — most were collected from the wild. The idea of breeding to prevent extinction hadn't yet arisen, and even if someone had had the inspiration, successful captive breeding requires knowledge about the animal's natural behavior. But the species hadn't been studied in the wild — most people who observed them had a very different priority. "When someone had the opportunity to be close to a passenger pigeon in the wild, in virtually every instance, they killed it," Greenberg says.

The concept of wildlife protection legislation was in its infancy at the time. Starting in the 1850s, states had begun to pass laws protecting songbirds and some game birds. But the pigeons slipped through the cracks, and the one real chance they had didn't work out: In 1857, Ohio studied whether to include them in a bird protection law and concluded that they were so abundant that they didn'tneed protection. It was later deemed the fifth most embarrassing moment in state history by the Ohio Historical Society.

Michigan was the only state that ever banned the killing of passenger pigeons — in 1897, according toGreenberg. "That's the good news," he says."The bad news: By then, there were none left."

A Lasting Legacy

The only comfort from the tale of the passenger pigeon is that it did make people take notice at a time when the idea of conservation was just beginning to take hold, and the world really did change as a result. "I think in good conscience, you can trace the conservation laws we have now to the shocking loss of the pigeon," Greengerg says. "People remembered it, and they behaved differently afterward."

Greenberg says that the extinction of the passenger pigeon helped inspire the nation's first conservation movement, out of which came the Lacey Act, the first federal bird protection law, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. John F. Lacey, a Republican congressman from Iowa, talked about the passenger pigeon as he argued for the law that was named after him. "Lacey got up on the floor of the House and said, 'It's too late for the pigeon, but there's still good work to be done,'" Greenberg says.

This set the stage for the movements later in the 20th century that led to additional legislation protecting the environment and endangered species.

"If you end the story on September 1, 1914, you could say it's a sad story, but it didn't end there," Greenberg says. "It changed the way we as a country deal with wildlife."

To learn more about Joel Greenberg and his efforts to keep the passenger pigeon's loss front of mind, visit

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