A Century After Its Extinction, Students Remember The Passenger Pigeon

May 27, 2014

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. The birds were once more numerous than all the other bird species in North America combined.  To honor the birds and to promote awareness about human-caused extinctions, people around the world are making passenger pigeons out of folded paper. They hope to create an online flock of a million birds.

Fifth and sixth graders at Newfane’s NewBrook Elementary School made their contribution to the flock recently, with the help of Elizabeth Macalaster. Macalaster is a writer who lives in Newfane. She’s interested in pigeons of all kinds. When she heard about the  passenger pigeon flock she decided to bring the project  and the passenger pigeons’ story to students in her town.

Passenger pigeons were different from the pigeons that are common now, Macalaster told the class. They were much noisier, for one thing.

"Let’s say you’re out on the playground and all of a sudden you hear a sound like thunder,” she said. "The noise gets louder and louder, and suddenly overhead the sky gets completely black -- because it’s full of birds"

Macalaster says the pigeons would darken the sky for days when they passed overhead during their migrations. There were so many of them that a single nesting colony could be 25 miles long.

"They had very long tails, and boy, were they fast," she says. "They could fly 60 miles an hour!" But the birds were also good to eat and easy to hunt.

"You could take a big net and throw it up in a tree where the birds were, and you’d have 500," Macalaster says. "People would knock them out with poles. They started to build special trains that would go into the forest and take them into New York City, where people loved to eat them."

Meanwhile, Macalaster says the forests where the birds lived were being cleared for farmland. The last passenger pigeon on earth, a bird named Martha, died alone at a zoo in Ohio on September 1, 1914.

The last passenger pigeon on earth, a bird named Martha, died alone at a zoo in Ohio on September 1, 1914.

She holds up a picture of a bluish-colored bird with a rosy breast and invites each student to take a large sheet of paper printed in the same colors. On each sheet are step by step directions for folding a passenger pigeon, using the ancient Japanese art of origami.

Macalaster and Suzanne Paugh, the art teacher, circulate around the art room helping students follow the directions. Some of the children have never heard the passenger pigeons’ story. But everyone seems to understand that animals can still become extinct, and that many are in danger now. The kids name the ones they know are in trouble: lions, tigers, pandas, eagles.

"There’s a lot of them," says Liam Towle, a student in the class. Towle worries especially about polar bears and the melting of the ice they need to survive. He says making paper pigeons is a way to get people to remember the birds and think about what could be lost in the future. But Towle says that’s not enough.

"I think overall we might have to do something bigger," he says.

Pia Burke, who’s folding a whole family of passenger pigeons, says people have to change.

"People should just watch out and not over hunt and just try to be respectful," she says. "People are just building more shopping malls. You don’t need shopping malls. Yeah, you need a house. But destroying other creatures’ houses, that’s just mean." Remember the passenger pigeons, she says. There were so many of them! But it didn’t take that long for them to disappear forever.

The Fold the Flock Project is an initiative of the Lost Bird Project, an arts-based environmental non-profit organization. Patterns for origami passenger pigeons are available through the group’s website.