Passenger Pigeon Extinct: Remembrance Day for Lost Species

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November 30 is officially Remembrance Day for Lost Species. LostSpeciesDay.org explains,

Remembrance Day for Lost Species, November 30th, is a chance each year to explore the stories of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures, lifeways, and ecological communities.

Whilst emphasising that these losses are rooted in violent and discriminatory governing practices, the day provides an opportunity for participants to make or renew commitments to all who remain, and to develop creative and practical solutions.1

To support their assumption that creatures go extinct because of humans, many researchers have pointed fingers at the passenger pigeon (extinct). As recently as 1850, passenger pigeons were the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly even the world, with billions of birds alive in the early nineteenth century. They flew in dense flocks of thousands, so thick they could block the sun and darken the earth. Some legends say that a flock of passenger pigeons could mimic a solar eclipse.

But while passenger pigeons soared in the low skies, European settlers, colonists, and Americans were expanding their population. The pigeons could pester farmers and the environment alike. They often settled their dense cohort in just a few trees, their weight breaking branches, their droppings sometimes killing tree roots and other vegetation. Often farmers killed them the way one might shoot a rabbit, squirrel, or deer in the garden.

But unfortunately for the passenger pigeon, humans developed a taste for their silky, dark flesh, which likely resembled squab from other pigeons that humans still eat today. They became wildly hunted, and easily so, given their propensity to fly lower to the ground and in vast numbers. Children could knock them out with stones and potatoes; men assaulted them with sticks. Soon they were a highly marketable franchise. It seemed impossible for birds numbered in the billions to go extinct at human hands. No one worried about supply and demand.

But by 1900, most passenger pigeons alive existed in sanctuaries and zoos. On September 1, 1914, the final passenger pigeon, called Martha after Martha Washington, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species—in Perspective

How could birds numbered in the billions in 1850 be extinct by 1914? That question is still a matter of some debate among ornithologists.

How could birds numbered in the billions in 1850 be extinct by 1914? That question is still a matter of some debate among ornithologists. Recent research has revealed that “the passenger pigeon genome had surprisingly low diversity compared to the overall size of their population.”2 Normally, vast populations of a species have a more diverse genome. That diversity helps keep them alive and thriving. A close look at passenger pigeons also revealed that the bird typically laid only one egg at a time, making the death-to-birth ratio remarkably unsustainable.

The passenger pigeon simply did not have the genetic diversity or makeup to survive the vast hunting practices of the nineteenth century. And humans at that time knew little to nothing about genome diversity and the fragility of those seemingly abundant birds.

The philosophy behind Remembrance Day for Lost Species is flawed: not all extinctions result from violent or discriminatory governing practices. After Noah’s catastrophic flood, many animal species could no longer survive in earth’s new conditions, and species have been dying off ever since (see Dr. Jeanson’s articles explaining this fact here). Such a sad fact is evidence of the curse because of Adam’s sin.

Irresponsible animal killings, however, have resulted in many extinctions and endangered species. Such reckless hunting violates our biblical mandate to steward God’s creation: “The Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). It’s impossible to know whether nineteenth-century hunters were irresponsibly hunting passenger pigeons. With the absence of science, they likely didn’t think that vast numbers of birds would die off so quickly. Did they hunt more than necessary for dishonest monetary gain? It’s possible and likely.

The Purpose of Remembrance: Extinct Passenger Pigeon’s Legacy

Remembering lost species is essential because it reminds us of our God-given duty and of the wonders of his vast and beautiful creation.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species has some faulty philosophies, specifically that of elevating animals to equal or greater importance than humans and ignoring the results of the worldwide flood on creation. Humans are not equal to animals because humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

But animals are valuable. The extinct passenger pigeon is important because it sparked many responsible hunting laws, widespread wildlife awareness, and some of the first conservation efforts that honor God’s mandate to us to steward his creation. Remembering lost species is essential because it reminds us of our God-given duty and of the wonders of his vast and beautiful creation. It’s a chance to explore the stories of extinct and critically endangered species, teaching us of God’s creation, gracious designs, and special purposes for each creature.

O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures . . .  . May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works (Psalm 104:1–31).

References

Schaeffer, Francis, and Udo W. Middelmann. Pollution and the Death of Man. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

Wilson, Gordon. A Different Shade of Green. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2019.

Footnotes

  1. https://www.lostspeciesday.org.
  2. Murray, Gemma G. R., et al. "Natural Selection Shaped the Rise and Fall of Passenger Pigeon Genomic Diversity." Science 358, no. 6365 (2017): 951–954. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6365/95.

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