Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Environmental denial in history - nope, nothing's gone wrong with passenger pigeons

Nice segment on Living on Earth on a book about the loss of passenger pigeons in eastern North America, from billions in 1860 to functionally extinct in 1900 and extinct extinct in 1914.

The denialist forefathers of our current friends were apparently out in force, some of them part of the passenger pigeon hunting industry. A few carrots:

*They said the pigeons were prolific, with multiple eggs and multiple clutches per season, when neither was true. Probably correllates to the claim that there's no reason to worry about acidification of ocean corals or polar bear habitat loss, based on their survival of past events fifty million and 300,000 years ago.

*A one-time, big flock event in 1882 showed the pigeons were fine. Nice correspondence to any time that we have a cold event.

*The birds just moved somewhere:  this is just making up stuff. See anything Tamino critiques as a correllate.

*When they were truly extinct:  a hunter calls it inexplicable. Probably similar to the mysterious coincidence we presently see as the world just happens to be warming for natural reasons in the way that climate science predicts greenhouse gases would make happen.

While evolution denial precedes this by a decade or two, it's the first environmental issue I'm aware of where denialism spewed forth. Would love to hear of earlier examples.

I didn't know the pigeons were still doing well in the 1860s, when much of their habitat destruction had already ocurred. I'm sure relatively minimal regulation could've kept this species abundant.


UPDATE:  thought I'd add two tangents. First, it's interesting to think of how things would've been different if the pigeon had been properly managed. There's good reason to think it would still be prolific. Hunting pigeons would be as common if not more common than fishing is today.

Second, passenger pigeons are mentioned as candidates for de-extinction through genetic engineering. I think that's a bad idea. The bird numbered in the billions when it had a full complement of diseases and parasites, all of which are now gone. Unless we bring those controls back, there's a serious risk from this species. Mammoths would be much easier to keep their populations in check.

14 comments:

Bernard J. said...

Coincidentally I was speaking with a radio journalist today regarding a comment one of his listeners had made about why an abundant native species was protected - the questioner couldn't understand the need for any protection whatsoever and thought that it should be trapped and hunted at will.

The example I used to illustrate the point that abundance is not necessarily a guarantee of security was the passenger pigeon. Surprisingly it seems that their demise is not nearly as well known about these days as it was a few decades ago.

Those who forget history...

Anonymous said...

Susan Solomon uses the example of lead poisoning denial in the 18th(?) Century in her talks - definitely deserves to be a better-known example.

EliRabett said...

The death of the last passenger pigeon in a zoo was a huge event, and those of our grandparents who were children then were impressed by it. Sadly, our grandparents have passed to and there is almost no one left who would remember.

Anonymous said...

More utter non-sense from the hysterics.

Yes the pigeons disappeared BECAUSE PEOPLE WERE EATING THEM!

Ever wonder why we eat chicken - an Asian bird?

Direct predation has been significant ( mega-fauna? ) whether for food, like the pigeons, or for hide, like the buffalo, or for sport, like the polar bears - didn't the polar bears do much better when we stopped shooting so many of them?

Go breathe into a paper bag - all species have evolved to tolerate much worse.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

Oh sure, shooting pigeons for sport, destroying their breeding and nesting grounds and habitat destruction had nothing to do with it. And of course, since every last one of them was eaten the their demise is excusable. It's amazing how tolerant the passenger pigeons were to their complete extinction.

ALL CAPS IS A NICE TOUCH TOO!!!!!!!

Steve Bloom said...

Really good info, thanks to Brian for highlighting it.

In particular I hadn't known about the origin of "stool pigeon," which I'm thinking could perhaps be used in the present for climate deniers since they so dislike being called that.

Russell Seitz said...

Had laquered squab at a Vietnamese restaurant the other day. Superb.

Readers with shoots should invite synthetic biologists, and encourage them to revive the passenger pigeon phenotype

As there seems little hope of modifying the creatures to increase white-tailed deer predation,Mayor DeBlasio may wish to add locavorevenison and pigeon pie to school lunch programs in the interest of a more balanced urban ecology.

cRR Kampen said...

So did the passenger pigeon revisionists go extinct with the pigeon?
No. They cheered and went on to help kill off something other while spawning some more revisionists for us to not deal with.

Thomas said...

The idea that resurrecting passenger pigeons could be dangerous because of a population explosion was new to me, but not impossible I suppose. My worry has for recreating species has been the opposite, that since it is an expensive process where we probably only have a few "parents" to clone from, the recreated species will have a narrow genetic base and thus will be vulnerable to inbreeding and find it difficult to adapt to changing conditions or new diseases.

Russell Seitz said...

The Revivisectionists have but to find an cache of Victorian canned goods to assure genetic diversity, for if it takes four and twenty blackbirds to bake into a pie, there should be a dozen pigeons in every case

Hank Roberts said...

I'm in favor of the Long Now idea of trying to recover the passenger pigeon, on the basis that somebody ought to be doing something and that's something.

Part of the lesson there is how fragile the birds were as a species despite how many of them there were -- needing unimaginably large undisturbed areas to reach the threshold population they required for success in reproduction, so dying off wholesale as the wilderness got fragmented by human intrusion.
http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/779939pass.html

I think they'd be unlikely to spread like kudzu in the fragmented environment we now have.

I'm sure whatever bacteria and viruses may have preferred living off their population are still around, waiting hopefully for the next pigeon to come along.

Yeah, I'd prefer mammoths too; but they've got to practice on something smaller and easier to handle, to work out the techniques. Other candidates?

Brian said...

Lots of other more recently extirpated candidates, like amphibians.

I'm just speculating about the passenger pigeon, but I'm not sure habitat conditions in eastern North America today are that much worse than in the 1870s other than coastal and wetland areas.

Diseases and parasites usually have a specific host species, so they're gone, or most of them are anyway. Predators would adapt to eating pigeons, but they couldn't take up all the slack.

One way to do de-extinction would be to insert a terminator gene or multiple terminator genes so that an engineered virus could be released if necessary to control the species. This creates other concerns, though.

Russell Seitz said...

Considering how much it hurts to fire a mere elephant gun, mammoth may go unmolested.

EliRabett said...

Somewhat less tongue in cheek (big cheeks there Russell) you probably COULD finance mammoth reconstruction if you sold hunting licenses. Of course, you would have to do something about Arctic warming or AC the range.