The full 2014 State of the Birds Report will be released
The Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird America has ever known.
As they migrated en masse up and down the eastern United States,
they darkened the skylines of New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis,
and St. Louis. In 1860, one flock estimated to be a billion-birds
strong was said to be 300 miles long; it took 14 hours, from sun up to
sun down, for the flowing river in the sky to pass.
Forty years later, the river had dried up to the last few drops, a single bird or a solitary pair that had thus far escaped market hunting and forest clearing. The last known pigeons in the wild were shot around 1902. Then on September 1, 1914, the very last Passenger Pigeon—a captive bird the keepers at the Cincinnati Zoo called Martha—died.
From billions of birds to none, in half of a person’s lifetime.
On this somber 100th anniversary, we do not honor the Passenger Pigeon simply by bemoaning its demise. We honor it by reflecting on what we’ve learned.
Today, we know how to provide the crucial coastal habitat that has sparked a remarkable turnaround for American Oystercatchers; we know how to modify long-line fishing practices to prevent the accidental catch of endangered Short-tailed Albatrosses; and, we know how to manage jack pine forests in ways that make Kirtland’s Warbler populations grow.
If Passenger Pigeons were indicators of our collective indifference toward birds, this fifth State of the Birds report signals how far we’ve come.
In this report we use birds as indicators of ecosystem health by examining population trends of obligate species for a single habitat (all the bird species dependent primarily on that habitat for survival). This 2014 report marks the fifth State of the Birds, so you will see references to the habitat indicators’ trends since 2009. As you read the report, ask yourself, what are the birds telling us about our lands and waters? Aridland birds are rapidly declining, perhaps an echo of environmental conditions and habitat change in the West. Eastern Meadowlarks are disappearing as family farms fade from rural America. Yet wetland birds have staged a robust recovery—with the help of programs that safeguard wetlands such as the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the federal Duck Stamp, populations of Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, and some other duck species have risen dramatically.
In the Preventing Extinctions section of this report, you’ll read about Watch List species that require our immediate conservation attention, and the factors driving their declines. In Preserving Abundance, you’ll read about the Common Birds in Steep Decline—those species that still mostly number in the millions but have lost more than half of their global population. Remembering the Passenger Pigeon, we know the importance of keeping common birds common. Surely we can strive for more than Noah’s Ark, more than just a representative sampling of species on Earth. Our grandchildren deserve to hear a springtime chorus of meadowlarks calling from the fenceposts, to see wave after wave of sandpipers dancing along the surf, to be amazed by nature not just in its presence, but in its multitudes.
Birds aren’t just warning signals; they give us hope. Ducks fly again in great aerial cascades along California’s Central Valley and up the Mississippi River and into Chesapeake Bay. California Condors were saved from the brink of extinction, from just 22 birds to more than 200 today. Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, Peregrine Falcons—all species once headed the way of the Passenger Pigeon—are now abundant again.
Today, we have the science, technology, and knowledge to prevent extinctions. Conservation works. When we have the will to conserve, we can make a better future: for birds, for ecosystems, for everyone.