Sullivan with the museum's passenger pigeon
Sullivan with the museum's passenger pigeon Credit: Liz Steelman

In the early 1800s, when passenger pigeons comprised one quarter of the bird population east of the Mississippi, a flock flying over what’s now Chicago could darken the sky for three days. By 1874, when an Evanstonian named J.G. Allyn killed this specimen and donated it to the Chicago Academy of Sciences (where it was preserved and stuffed), hunters in Wisconsin could bring down 1,200 pigeons before breakfast and cooks could buy birds ready for eating by the barrel. And in 1914, Martha, the very last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo.

“It took only 50 years to kill off the passenger pigeon,” says Steve Sullivan, curator of urban ecology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the present incarnation of the Academy of Sciences. Humans shot the birds too quickly for them to reproduce and chopped down the trees where they roosted.

“People have forgotten,” says Sullivan. “It’s as if it never existed, and our lives are diminished.”

In practical terms, the passenger pigeon was a valuable source of food and also guano, which was used in gunpowder and fertilizer. Aesthetically, it was an uncommonly beautiful bird, with opalescent feathers that artists found impossible to reproduce.

In order to raise awareness of how humans have contributed to the destruction of other species, the museum has declared 2014 the year of the passenger pigeon. “The underlying story here,” says Sullivan, “is how our actions impact other species. We have no right to cause extinctions of other animals. It’s against our own best interests.”

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