The Hall of North American Birds is one of the most impressive displays in the Field Museum in Chicago. While many of the birds are fascinating to look at and read about, the passenger pigeon is in a class of its own.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries you couldn’t swing a cat on this continent without hitting a passenger pigeon. Ecologists have estimated that in the early 1800’s, one out of four birds in North America was a member of this ill-fated bunch. Reckless hunting on the part of settlers pushed them to extinction. It’s one of the stories that grown ups use to inspire conservation in kids. The problem is, when they tell it, they leave out one important consideration.
When you stop and think about it, the story seems a little iffy. Billions of birds blackening the sky? What is the nearest modern equivalent of that? Locusts. They sweep across landscapes, decimate crops, and generally cause problems for everything that stands in their way. Not surprisingly, passenger pigeons were known for much the same thing. Their slaughter was often brought on by the fear that they would fly away with a stomach full of farming livelihood.
Archaeological evidence from First Nations settlements throughout North America suggest that, before the arrival of Europeans, passenger pigeons were somewhat hard to come by. Despite the presence of thousands of birds bones from countless species at a large number of sites, the incidence of passenger pigeon bones is rare. The theory surrounding this issue is that, since the pigeons were a competitor for many of the items that were grown on the continent at that time, First Nations people took steps to keep their numbers down. After the arrival of Europeans and European disease, the number of First Nations people dropped dramatically, leading to an explosion in bird numbers.
It's an interesting thought and it contains an often-overlooked lesson of environmental stewardship. Caring for the environment does not mean isolating it from human intervention. On the contrary, the challenge of effective environmental management is finding a way to maintain the world’s stock of recourses as we make use of them. First Nations people lived sustainably for thousands of years, but they also dramatically altered the landscapes they inhabited. In the age of pipelines, parks, and mineral mining, this is something that we can’t afford to forget. Setting aside every acre of land for conservation is impractical. If we did that, we wouldn’t be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Our only choice is to find the balance. That is the real lesson of the passenger pigeon.