Emma Websdale is a Conservation Biologist and Writer. Working as the Communications Support Officer for The Wildlife Trusts, she is particularly motivated in engaging younger audiences, helping them make sure that nature doesn’t drop off their agenda.
I sit on a train that’s heading to London, September’s issue of BBC Wildlife in my hands. I feel remorse and frustration. I stare at page 75 – John James Audubon’s illustration decorates the page, a beautiful hand-drawn picture of two Passenger Pigeons. They are warming to the eye – the male’s chest the colour of autumn, a wash of red and orange. The female is perched above him; leaning down and taking food from his mouth, giving a subtle hint of the bird’s affection. This species was gregariously sociable – a bird that nested in colonies of hundreds of thousands of pairs that the sheer weight of their winter roosts would make large branches abandon their trees. This was a species that travelled the skies together by the million, taking many hours to pass through an area.
I stare into their red eyes. I feel deep discontent. I will never get to see this bird alive, nor will anyone else. For just over 100 years now, this bird has been extinct – completely wiped from the planet. I read Mark Avery’s words, “The passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird the world has ever seen, only decades before extinction. So how on earth did we wipe it out?” And how on earth did we? I read the story… sadly; it is always the familiar one.
This was a bird whose survival was against many odds. Its habitat greatly reduced and replaced with resources to feed our appetites of firewood and agriculture. Competitors including wild (and feral) pigs and the arrival of the House Sparrow were also contributing factors. However, what really pushed this species to its extinction was the culling of their colonies. Culls that would result in areas of forest either set alight or felled in attempt to flush out flocks. These birds were culled in a magnitude rich enough to fill up hundreds of barrels each year for transportation which ended up becoming an item on a restaurant menu.
Mark’s story reminded me of how the last remaining wild Passenger Pigeon went out. Shot down in Ohio in 1900 by a 14-year old boy. This was the same year that the first hamburger was sold. Following 14 years later, Martha – the very last remaining known Passenger Pigeon died in her cage at Cincinnati Zoo at lunchtime. I cannot help but wonder how many people (ironically) were consuming a hamburger during Martha’s last breath – a big contribution to the removal of her habitat to make space for raising cattle.
Personally, the most devastating part to this story isn’t the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. You see – humans can be messy, greedy and busy, but despite these negative tendencies, humans can also learn to restore a loss into something much better to create a gain. But we didn’t. Only 4 years after Martha’s passing, Incas – the last brightly painted Carolina Parakeet in the world, also breathed his last breath in the exact same cage as Martha. Now that is something unforgivable. Did we really make the same mistake twice? Two incredible species both lost in the same way? Yes, the frightening answer is yes.
Frustratingly, it is this mistake in humans – to ignore ecological losses by focusing on economic gains that remains a stronghold within our attitude. This week, a crucial report released from the WWF and ZSL entitled ‘Living Planet Report 2014’ announced that the number of wild animals on Earth has declined by half in just the last 40 years. The reasons – the same as the ones behind the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. Humans living unsustainably while polluting and degrading habitats. For one of the first times I can recall these frightening statistics on wildlife losses broke out into a main news channel – at 18.30 on channel 5, which welcomed Chris Packham’s viewpoints.
So what is the next species to leave us? Might it be the Spoon-billed Sandpiper or perhaps the Black Rhino?
Now this is what we are up against – very recently, I encouraged my brother to visit London’s Natural History Museum. As soon as we submerged ourselves into the ancient and intriguing world of nature, I instantly sought out the bird section in hope to see a Passenger Pigeon. There in front of me behind the glass, stood the solid, stiff body of a passenger. Among it was an Great Auk, Dodo and Carolina Parakeet. The eeriness of their stiffness reminded me that their once presence in the wild had been reduced to nothing more than a museum collection. No one seemed to even bother to stop and look at these lost birds. It angered me. “Isn’t it frustrating to see that no one is bothered about these birds? They are gone. Forever.” I pointed towards the birds. To my horror, my brother simply turned around and replied with “So? It is only a bird. Not like a lion or tiger.” And that was from my own bloodline, my older brother – someone who I thought would know better. This is miserably such a common occurrence – people who are so disconnected from nature that they can’t even comprehend what such a beautiful loss could mean for both its ecosystem and even us humans.
I think back to Charles, Robert and many other young boys who eagerly attend the Wildlife Watch group I volunteer at, and feel proud. The excitement and thrill that explodes on their faces as they stumble across a newt or catch a pill millipede. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we continue engaging this exciting youth conservation movement with real and unforgotten natural experiences it can make some kind of dent. So that when they turn 14, unlike the boy in Ohio, their gun equipped hands are replaced with bug pots, lens caps and binoculars. And even better, perhaps with wildlife decline statistics finally making mainstream news, these children’s parents – who most likely don’t care about a bird going extinct… just might give it a second thought.
Martha was a warning. Incas was a consequence of not listening to her warning. With only 50% of our wildlife left, now really is the time to be listening.