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Zoos Couldn’t Save The Passenger Pigeon

September 5, 2014

There are lots of interesting lessons (most of them cautionary) in the extinction of the passenger pigeon 100 years ago, and most of them are raised in Carl Zimmer’s excellent story about why it happened and what scientists are doing to try and bring the species back (did you know social media played a role in wiping the passenger pigeon out?).

But here’s a point that really caught my attention:

Soon this technology-driven slaughter was decimating the passenger pigeon. Its decline was so worrisome that Congress passed the Lacey Act, one of the first laws to protect wildlife in the United States. The Lacey Act would eventually help protect many species, but for the passenger pigeon it came too late.

In 1900, the year in which the act was made into law, naturalists spotted a single wild passenger pigeon in Ohio. They never saw another one in the wild again.

For the next 14 years, the species clung to existence in a few zoos. But the birds proved to be poor breeders in captivity. Martha, the last of her kind, was barren.

That history should be kept in mind the next time you hear a zoo or marine park justify captivity and their business model by saying they are helping preserve species that might be threatened or endangered in the wild. Some species will presumably be easier to breed in captivity than passenger pigeons. Some presumably less. That will affect how long a species can “cling” to existence. But the point is that zoos and captivity are not a way to save or preserve a species. That work has to take place in the wild.

And that is completely apart from the question of whether a species can be considered “preserved” or in “existence” if it only exists in a zoo. The difference between a wild passenger pigeon and “Martha” is like the difference between a facsimile and the real, dynamic, thing. Here is how Zimmer describes Martha’s life in the Cincinnati Zoo:

People coming to the zoo to see the last passenger pigeon were disappointed by the bird, which barely budged off its perch. As Joel Greenberg writes in his recent book A Feathered River Across the Sky, some threw sand into its cage to try to force it to walk around. But on that first day of September a century ago, Martha no longer had to put up with such humiliations.

It was a quiet end to a noisy species. As recently as the mid-1800s, deafening flocks of billions of passenger pigeons swarmed across the eastern half of the United States. But they proved no match for humans, whose rapidly advancing technology drove the birds to extinction in a matter of decades.

Martha (and the story of her species), it seems, is well worth remembering.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy Mayers permalink
    September 5, 2014 8:54 am

    Spot on, Tim. We need to look closely at — even deconstruct — what zoos say and challenge them on it. I think zoos actually have a nihilistic philosophy at root. “Animals are going extinct, so we’re creating an insurance population,” they say, read: there’s nothing we can do so we’ll just pull up the drawbridge and make sure we have jobs in the future (sorry for mixing metaphors or whatever lol). Shouldn’t they be teaching future generations that even if the challenges are daunting, nothing will happen unless we confront them head-on?

  2. September 5, 2014 10:51 am

    Thanks for the reflections on my essay. As I wrote it, I was also thinking about the role of zoos in the end of the passenger pigeons.

    Zoos in the late 1800s had little scientific knowledge of the species they were keeping. Scientists didn’t even know about genetics, so they couldn’t understand what was likely the cause of Martha’s infertility: inbreeding. A century later, zoos have sophisticated captive breeding programs that take into account not just the genetics of their species, but the kinds of behavior required for successful mating and rearing of young. Many of these programs have failed, yes, but some have produced growing populations of endangered species.

    Of course, then comes the matter of what happens when those captively-bred animals are released back into the wild….and that’s something zoos have no control over.

  3. Amy Mayers permalink
    September 5, 2014 6:56 pm

    Unfortunately, though, zoos are notoriously behind the times when it comes to the science of animals like elephants. While knowledge of elephant biology, psychology, social habits, etc., has grown tremendously in the last decades, zoos have mostly made small cosmetic changes in their ele exhibits, without addressing how or whether they can actually meet elephants’ natural needs. They’re spending tens of millions on exhibits that are too small and outdated before they even open — the $56 million the National Zoo spent renovating its ele exhibit is just one example. And in spite of spending who knows much on AI programs, studies of reproduction, etc., on the whole zoos fail miserably in getting their eles to reproduce. Also, AI tends to produce male calves. Zoos don’t want male calves because they’re harder to manage, and thus bulls in captivity have terrible lives. Zoos are intellectually and morally bankrupt in cases such as this.

  4. September 6, 2014 3:22 pm

    High School Students in Ms. Deb Perryman’s Elgin, IL High School class were inspired by passenger pigeons and the extinction thereof. They started something called a National Biodiversity Teach In taking place the week of 9/22/14. This is a student led initiative created by students for students. They obtained speakers on biodiversity and will be webcasting speaker presentations to over 5000 students all over the US and Canada. Dr. Naomi Rose is one of the speakers. She will be speaking about what happens when you delete orca calves in the wild and what it does to their pods.

    This project has the capacity to reach over 100k students via webcast. They hope to get the attention of US Congress and want September to be designated National Biodiversity Month to honor Miss Martha. There is still time to sign up students/classes. You can read more about this 100% student led program here:

  5. September 8, 2014 12:53 pm

    I am not a big fan of the concept of captivity, but it has its place. There seems to be a lot of anti-zoo sentiment in the news and on blogs lately, but the only thing black and white about zoos is zebras (or pandas). In terms of contributing to conservation, it depends on the zoo, and on what they are doing, and it doesn’t take a lot of searching to find positive examples. Here’s one: short-beaked echidnas in Australian zoos. These are not endangered, but their wild cousins, the long-beaked echidnas, are. Research in zoos on reproduction in the short-beaks is highly likely to save the wild long-beaks. The black-footed ferret, the golden lion tamarin, the Aldabran tortoise, Californian condor, red wolf and the Przwalski’s horse were all saved by zoos and captive breeding. Captive facilities in New Zealand have raised and released 25,000 endangered kiwis, and have so far prevented the extinction of the kakapo and the tuatara. Predator-free islands are allowing for release of captively-bred animals. In Australia, swamp tortoises and bilbies are amongst those brought back from the brink.

    Then there’s money. Half of the entrance fee to Auckland Zoo goes directly to in-situ conservation, (and the zoo’s campaigning has removed palm oil from many NZ products). Australia Zoo has used funds raised through admissions to buy and preserve huge tracts of land in Indonesia.

    And there’s education (Belize Zoo has all but eliminated poaching in most of Belize through its education programmes, offered free to all Belizian children) and welfare (Belize Zoo has taken in confiscated pet monkeys, and provides beautiful enclosures for jaguars which would otherwise have been shot by farmers for killing livestock).

    As you have said in your comment, times have changed, and understanding of genetics and behaviour have improved. We all know that wild populations are not safe, and many now require stewardship. Research in zoos is improving knowledge of how to manage wild populations, and much more important research takes place in zoos than most people know. At Twycross Zoo in the UK, for example, important gorilla health research is helping to protect wild populations.

    There is a wide continuum of habitats in which animals can live – in captivity: from the most horrible, barren, sterile cage at a roadside zoo, to the most naturalistic, highly enriched environments; and in the wild: from the most highly polluted, logged, degraded forests to as close to pristine as possible. Clearly there is an overlapbetween zoo and wild. I would prefer to see bloggers and journalists celebrating the valuable work that some zoos are doing, and focusing criticism on more pressing issues facing animals – those exploitative zoos with poor welfare; poaching for the pet and tourist trade, photoprops, circuses, bushmeat; habitat loss to fuel our desire for wood and agricultural land. While there has been lots of focus on captive orcas, for example, very few people seem to care that the waters off the west coast of California are so highly polluted that wild orcas are suffering major health issues.

    Em (MSc Primate Conservation)

  6. Anne Cosalter permalink
    September 8, 2014 5:48 pm

    Hi, thank you for your compassion and this story about yet another species extinct😦
    One question tho: why was it technology’s/ social medias fault? That part is missing in your article! I’m curious!
    Thank you again

    • September 8, 2014 9:04 pm

      Hi Anne: if you follow the link to Carl Zimmer’s article about the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and the role of the telegraph, you will read how “social media” played a role…Tim

  7. jkmhoffman2014 permalink
    September 9, 2014 9:07 am

    Reblogged this on jkmhoffman.

  8. Sarah J permalink
    October 30, 2014 11:45 pm

    Captive breeding shouldn’t be an end-all, be-all, but I do think it can help. It has to be done in conjunction with efforts to preserve wild populations. After all, what’s the point of keeping captive tigers if nothing is ever done about poaching or habitat loss? And some species don’t do very well in captivity at all. Some don’t live well and some don’t breed well.

    I enjoy a good zoo or aquarium, but there is definite room for improvement in many aspects (and many zoos are improving in these things) and I do hate when people argue that zoos should be around because all animals are going to go extinct. I again reiterate my point, why keep the animals around if they’re never going to be in the wild again?

    On the improvement, compare zoos today with zoos decades ago. Animals today have more natural, stimulating environments. There’s less focus on entertainment, more on education and research and helping animals in bad situations, whether it’s an illegally owned exotic pet seized by law enforcement or some injured or orphaned local wildlife. Zoos and aquariums can be great if it doesn’t compromise the health (mental, physical, and emotional) of the animals.


  1. Reader Mailbag: Don’t We NEED Zoos? | Tim Zimmermann

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