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The Q? Blog

Common Birds are not Extinction-Proof

by Devin Reese -- Nov 17, 2014

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Museum mount of the last Passenger Pigeon, Martha, that died in 1914. Image 5.00467 by Carl Hansen, Smithsonian
Museum mount of the last Passenger Pigeon, Martha, that died in 1914. Image 5.00467 by Carl Hansen, Smithsonian

Pigeons today are so common that you’d think they are indestructible. Think again. The pigeon you find practically all over the world today is the Rock Dove (Columba livia), from the same family as the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). Passenger Pigeons were once so abundant that people assumed they could never go extinct. So, they were freely shot, netted, and smoked out of nests until they did go extinct – 100 years ago.

Even bird species that seem common are vulnerable to extinction from human impacts. Features of a bird’s life history may intersect with human activities for a lethal outcome. For the Passenger Pigeon, its habit of hanging out in huge flocks allowed hunters and trappers to kill hundreds at a time. For the infamous Dodo bird of Mauritius, its habit of nesting on the ground made it easy prey for rats and pigs. For today’s familiar Rock Dove, some other feature of its life history may eventually be its downfall.

Scientists who study birds (ornithologists) work to understand what factors drive birds to extinction. Using fossil and historical evidence to peer into bird populations in the past provides evidence about cause and effect. The history of bird extinctions on islands is especially dramatic because of their isolation.

Find out how native bird species on the Hawaiian Islands went from hundreds to handfuls. Watch a “Smithsonian Science How” webcast titled Bird Extinctions: Time Travel Through Lava Tubes on the Q?rius website. Dr. Helen James, a paleo-ornithologist at the National Museum of Natural History, will discuss and answer questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience. And, be sure to watch for Smithsonian museum happenings as part of Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America.