News & Events

UMPI hosts educational display on the extinction of the passenger pigeon

Sept. 1, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of Martha, the last remaining passenger pigeon, dying in captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo. To commemorate this important anniversary, the University of Maine at Presque Isle is hosting a display in Folsom Hall in an effort to bring awareness for endangered animals and how quickly they can become extinct.

The display, shown on the second floor of Folsom Hall, features a specimen of a male passenger pigeon from the collection of the Northern Maine Museum of Science, a history of the species’ population in the U.S., an origami passenger pigeon, a copy of the book Feathered River Across the Sky by Joel Greenberg (which provides much of the information for the display), a description of what it was like to be on the ground watching a flock fly by overhead, and a timeline of the extinction during the second half of the 19th century.

Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions and, at their peak, made up roughly 40 percent of the birds in North America. Flocks of these birds were so large that they could sometimes be seen passing overhead for days, darkening the skies. Just one passenger pigeon could grow to a size of 15 to 18 inches in length and 12 ounces. The passenger pigeons ranged across much of the northeastern U.S and Canada, and primarily nested in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ontario, New York and New England. They were abundant summer residents and migrants in Maine prior to the late 1800s, and were most prevalent in the Downeast region. Due to displacement and overhunting (including guns, fire, traps, nets, poison, and even bare hands), however, their population decreased over the decades to the point of extinction.

Dr. Judith Roe, UMPI Assistant Professor of Biology, explained that she hoped the display would help people learn about the history of this bird species, how prominent a role it played in the development of the East Coast, and how it came to be lost.

Prior to learning about the 100th anniversary, Roe was aware that UMPI was in possession of a passenger pigeon specimen—which the University had acquired from the Portland Museum of Natural History—and had been thinking about making a display for the Northern Maine Bird Festival that the Aroostook Birders host. The Aroostook Birders, of which Roe is a member, is a volunteer organization whose members share a passion for bird-watching and an appreciation of Northern Maine’s natural environment through field trips and educational programs. Roe’s idea for the display, which was moved to UMPI this fall after the Northern Maine Bird Festival, turned out to be quite timely.

“As we got into making the display and reading all of the information coming out because of the centennial, it was fascinating to think about what it must have been like in North America with the 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons roaming the landscape,” Roe said. “There is just nothing like it now. And the story of how they were hunted to extinction is also dramatic, because I’m sure it seemed unlikely that they could ever all be lost.”

The rise of the railroad and the telegraph in the 1800s provided access to the flocks, and the pigeons were hunted and shipped to the eastern cities. For example, there are stories of hunters placing ladders in roosts during the day while the birds were away, and then returning at night so they could shoot several birds with one shot along the ladder. The loss of forests in the U.S. also contributed to their decline and the species dropped dramatically in the late 1800s. Only a few birds remained in captivity by the early 1900s and the species’ extinction was officially marked with Martha’s death in 1914.

“The story of the passenger pigeon extinction and the conservation efforts that followed illustrates the need for continued vigilance to safeguard our natural environment for the future,” Roe said. “We invite the community to come to campus, view our display, and learn about the passenger pigeon’s story.”

For more information about this display, contact Dr. Roe at 768-9446 or email Roe at judith.roe@maine.edu.