The Fate of the American Passenger Pigeon

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in the North America, and even the world. The species were often viewed as a nuisance in the public eye because their population had grown so rapidly and had polluted many public areas. People took it upon themselves to take measures to control the population by shooting, trapping, and even poisoning mass groups of the passenger pigeons. This and other biological influences have pushed the population of the passenger pigeon to the brink of extinction.


The Situation

The so-called pigeon problem has been ongoing in the United States for over one hundred years. At the turn of the 18th century, we saw their number diminish so quickly that 5 billion birds vanished in two centuries. People’s effort to manage the species’ population has landed their efforts to the tipping point of extinction. New studies have begun to dig deeper into the true reason for the decline of the passenger pigeon. Scientists are turning the bird’s genome to hopefully shed some light on the issue.

One study conducted by Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz along with some of her colleagues have found some new information about the pigeon’s population decline. The study looked at collected pieces of the bird’s skin from about 200 passenger pigeons from taxidermied bodies that are 100 years old. They took these pieces of skin to study their sequenced genomes and compared them to the band-tailed pigeon who is a close relative to the species that still has a managed population in smaller flocks.

Shapiro’s conclusions found that the species’ genome was essentially made to be a superspecies in a natural environment. Her team found that the passenger pigeons biological makeup was at its peak when the species was flourishing in mass flocks. When humans made the push to curb the population, their genome was not made to thrive in smaller flocks thus leading to their decline. Shapiro believes that just because humans push a species to a smaller population, does not guarantee that the species is genetically structured to thrive in that manner.

This may not be the blanket answer for the mass decline but it is a strong step in uncovering the truth of this mystery. Shapiro believes that the pigeons could still be flying today if it was not for the skills of the modern day human hunter. Yet, evolutionary changes also play a factor in the population’s disappearance.