There's an important lesson in From Billions to None, a new documentary about the extinct passenger pigeon

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Martha in her final resting place: the Smithsonian Institution
  • Martha in her final resting place: the Smithsonian Institution
2014 is the year of the passenger pigeon. Not that any passenger pigeons are around to appreciate this fact: the last one, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo exactly a century ago, on September 1, 1914. What makes the extinction of the passenger pigeon particularly tragic is that less than 50 years before Martha's death, there were millions, even billions, of passenger pigeons in North America. They were so numerous that a flock flying overhead could darken the skies and the beating of their wings could cause changes in the atmosphere, like weather. Today the passenger pigeon is an object lesson in the damage human greed has done.

Last night a new documentary, From Billions to None, about the life and death of the passenger pigeon premiered at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The film was funded largely through an IndieGoGo campaign and will air on PBS this fall. Its director, David Mrazek, and star (and coproducer), Joel Greenberg, were on hand to answer questions.

Greenberg is a naturalist and author, most recently of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, and a passionate advocate for preserving the legacy of the passenger pigeon. (His car bears a bumper sticker reading, "Ask me about my passenger pigeon.") "It's a cautionary tale," he says in the film. "No matter how common something is, we can lose it."

Archaeological evidence shows that passenger pigeons were flying across North America as early as 12,000 BCE. Native Americans and later white settlers discovered they were a cheap and plentiful source of food. By 1750, humans were noticing that the flocks of pigeons weren't quite as plentiful as they used to be. Nonetheless, a little more than 100 years later, in 1857, the Ohio state legislature decided that there was no need to establish laws protecting the passenger pigeon because there were still so many of them. Indeed, the largest nesting of passenger pigeons in recorded history took place in central Wisconsin in 1871: 136 million birds temporarily settled in an area of approximately 850 square miles. (In the film, Greenberg visits a state park where the birds probably nested. It's beautiful. And pigeon-less.) Twenty-eight years later, hunters shot down the last wild passenger pigeon in the entire state.

Passenger pigeons could be pests, destroying crops, but farmers retaliated by shooting them for food (approximately two million birds were killed in 1881 alone), trapping them (using decoys called stool pigeons), or setting fires to kill them by asphyxiation. They did have their benefits, though: their droppings made for good fertilizer. One scientist interviewed in the film (the heads of the people in front of me blocked his name) theorizes that the pigeons ate the ticks that cause Lyme disease. They were also aesthetically pleasing, with beautiful iridescent feathers.

How did such an enormous bird population disappear so completely and so quickly? No one knows for sure, but the prevailing theory is that all the hunting made the passenger pigeons skittish and afraid to nest. If they couldn't nest, they couldn't reproduce, and the birds reproduced at a relatively slow rate anyway, one chick per set of parents per year.

By the 1890s, humans started taking preventative measures and breeding passenger pigeons, but it was too little too late. Among the breeders was U. of C. professor Charles Otis Whitman, and among his flock was Martha and her mate, George, whom he sent to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902.

Although passenger pigeons are dead, there are still between 1,600 and 2,000 still among us—in the form of stuffed specimens. (The Peggy Notebaert Museum and the Chicago Academy of Sciences have several.) Recently, a group called Revive and Restore has decided to bring the passenger pigeon back to life by extracting the DNA from these specimens, splicing them into the genes of a close cousin, the band-tailed pigeon, and then breeding.

Surprisingly, Greenberg and his fellow conservationists are not thrilled about this development. They warn of the unintended consequences of messing with nature. Ben Novak, the man behind Revive and Restore, assures Greenberg that if he notices the pigeons throwing the ecosystem out of whack, he will halt the project immediately, but even he doesn't expect passenger pigeons to return to their earlier, weather-inducing glory. Maybe, if we're lucky, he says, we'll have one flock after 200 years.

From Billions to None is a handsome film (with some beautiful aerial shots, collected via drone). Its message may not be new—and it will probably be repeated many times this year—but it's well worth listening to: all our collective actions as a species can have dire consequences.

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