By Ranger Steve Mueller
It has been 100 years since the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth died and joined the dinosaurs in extinction. It was on September 1, 1914, that the last remaining individual of its kind died, in the Cincinnati Zoo. We mourn the death of the last individual. Society experienced greater sorrow with loss of an entire species on that day. Gone were its contributions toward sustaining biodiversity in ecosystems.
The pigeon was the most abundant bird species, with a population that might have exceeded the number of all ducks combined. Its feeding activities likely controlled diseases like Lyme disease. Pigeon populations in the millions moved through the eastern deciduous forest feeding on acorns, American chestnuts, seeds and nuts. More than a billion total pigeons thrived. Their abundance removed food that would have supported deer and mice. This limited excessive deer and mice reproduction and resulted in fewer fleas. That reduced the spread of Lyme disease. Nature niche connections are often not obvious.
No Passenger Pigeons were left to pass on their genetic legacy into the coming millennia. An important thread in the fabric of life was stripped from ecosystems. It may seem the death of a species 100 years ago has no or little impact on people in the present. The increase in Lyme disease is just one impact that might have caused disability or even death for some people. Making absolute connections is not likely. Other connections relate to forest reproduction, abundance and composition of tree species. Pigeon feeding activity directed forest developed and numbers of other plants. In turn, it impacted the abundance and composition of animal populations present today.
Current scientific evidence suggests human activities are pushing many species toward extinction. The monarch butterfly population has declined due to land use practices. It numbered in the billions but last year’s winter population was only about 37 million. The Passenger Pigeon dropped below a threshold for survival and disappeared. There is concern the same might occur with the migratory monarch population. Several things limit monarch survival but one is human use of genetically modified crops that can tolerate herbicides so we can support an ever-growing human population. Crops growers increase the amount of chemicals on crops to eliminate wild plants like milkweed that are in or near croplands. With only a few milkweeds, monarchs cannot find food plants to lay their eggs as they migrate from Texas to Michigan.
All species strive to increase their kind but limiting factors keep them from continuous population growth. That is the case with the introduced exotic emerald ash borer that has largely eliminated ash trees in the landscape. In regions where they kill ashes, the beetles run out of food and their populations’ crash. It is a boom and bust population. People have found ways to delay human starvation for some regions. We have not responded by working to keep our population at or below the environment’s carrying capacity that would sustain our population for the centuries. Instead we are moving toward a boom number that will bust and crash. A continuous growing population will result in massive human death at some point. Human behavior today is not maintaining sustainable conditions to support future generations. Instead we focus on immediate personal interests and desires with boom and bust lifestyles.
Extinctions caused by human misuse of the Earth’s natural resources threaten other life forms but also threatens our own species long-term survival. Our population can sustain itself for millennia if we live within Earth’s carrying capacity. If not, we create a boom and bust that will cause massive deaths. Our behavior in the present is critically important for future human generations.
Many people choose to ignore evidence supporting the human influence on climate change or our impacts on species survival. Society’s behavior acted toward the Passenger Pigeon like society behaves toward climate change and species extinction threats. If we were interested in creation care and our offspring 20 generations hence, we would strive for sustainable lifestyles that do not squeeze other species off the planet. It depends on personal choices we make at home.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.