Higgins: Birds And Extinction

Aug 13, 2015

Birds embody movement — twitchy, agile, powerful, bursting with song and as light as the breeze. But there are nearly 400,000 birds at Harvard’s Department of Ornithology that will perch forever on the same branch or lie stiffly in cabinet after gray cabinet, songs silenced by the taxidermy cotton in their throats.

I was there to research extinct species, like the passenger pigeon, whose multitudes darkened noonday skies across North America for centuries. I wanted to see with my own eyes giant ivory-billed and imperial woodpeckers, elegant Eskimo curlews, and the penguin-like great auk. When the curator opened a drawer filled with Carolina parakeets, our country’s only native parrot, their iridescent green, yellow, and red plumage stunned me with its enduring radiance.

The stillness of these long-gone birds, though obviously not a surprise, came to feel nonetheless like an affront, a final insult atop the blunt finality of their extinction. As I watched my breath ruffle the blood-red crest of an ivory-bill, I couldn’t stop thinking about our shared responsibility for that stillness and, ultimately, for their absence, and how that absence has made the world less wild.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that the passenger pigeon “was no mere bird, he was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two biotic poles of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and his own zest for living. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life.”

The last pigeon, lonely and stiff with age, fell unseen from her perch in the Cincinnati Zoo and died on September 1, 1914.

Recently, some academics and scientists have voiced support for de-extinction, a process of high-tech genetic manipulation that they theorize might be able to bring species like the passenger pigeon back from the dead. Putting the eerie Jurassic Park parallels aside, I think this approach is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. The problem isn’t that these creatures are dead, though that’s indeed tragic; the problem is that we killed them.

Given the alarming number of birds and mammals still threatened by extinction around the globe, whether through over-hunting or habitat destruction, it’s not clear to me that we’ve learned the right lessons from the demise of the Labrador duck, the heath hen, or any of the other birds I spent time with that day. I’d hate to revive the passenger pigeon, only to see it go extinct again.