Five American Birds that have gone Extinct in the Past 100 Years
In 1987 the California Condor was so close to extinction that the United States Government took the drastic action to capture the last 22 individuals left in the wild and bring them into captivity where they could be strategically bred and kept safe until their numbers increased. This was such a controversial move that protests broke out from people who believed these birds should be left where they were, that they were better off dead than kept in captivity. Support may have been hard to find in the public due to the condor's poor image. Far from being beautiful these birds were more on the grotesque side. However they were the largest flighted birds in North America, with a massive wingspan of nine and a half feet and this did capture the imagination of many.
Under this great pressure the California Condor did make a recovery. Eventually their numbers in their captive breeding program grew to the point that conservationists were able to release some of the later generations back into the wild where some succeeded in reestablishing a truly wild breeding population. Although progress is still very slow (there are only 226 birds known to be living in the wild in May of 2012) it is still looking good for the California Condor. They have a lot of people rooting for their recovery and most expect that they will make it, but what happened to the less fortunate birds who found themselves in this predicament? Well, I am writing this article to tell you their tales, in honor and remembrance of some truly spectacular birds that we may never see alive again.
Passenger pigeons are one of the most startling cases of modern extinction. They were once the most numerous species of bird in North America, their population booming at anywhere between 3-5 billion by various estimates. They may have made up as much as 40% of all birds living on the continent. They were an intensely social species sharing their nesting tree with as many as 100 other pairs of pigeons. Their young were raised and abandoned to take care of themselves after only two weeks. These sleek birds were not animals who liked to settle down much, in fact they were fiercely migratory and there are many reports of flocks flying in the sky that would blacken out the sun for several hours or even days as they flew by. They were also quick and agile, flying at speeds of sixty miles an hour and on top of all that they were also beautifully colored.
So what happened to this prolific species? The first blow came with the logging industry which decimated much of their habitat and left many searching larger areas for food. Farmers also shot a great many of them that they had found eating their crops, but the species was still in very good shape and nowhere near extinction until the 1800's. Being as there were so many of them they were hunted - with a ferocity only befitting of man and in a manner that could have only been considered pure carnage. Their nesting sites were thoroughly picked over, their carcasses were served to prisoners and inmates as a cheap source of food and was also sold in vast numbers to Asian markets. Because they were communal birds and there were no hunting laws at the time they became an easy target. They could be caught in nets, lured with decoys, or even have their nesting trees gassed with pots of boiling sulfur until the dazed birds would fall from the trees. Chicks were often beaten out of the nests with long poles. From there they could be sold for as cheap as 50 cents a dozen and it got worse. With the invention of the telegraph birds could be spotted and reported in a blink of an eye. Hunters could be on their way within an hour. By the 1890's the birds were in such vast decline that they were scarce to find. Although laws were now being passed to protect them it was too late. The remaining birds were unable to adjust to breeding (and surviving predators) in small flocks and they went extinct. The last known passenger pigeon died at the ripe old age of 29 in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden at 1pm on September first 1914. From 1909-1912 the American Ornithologists' Union was offering a large reward of $1,500 to anyone who could find a living specimen in the wild but their efforts were futile and no one could collect the reward for it was already too late for the passenger pigeon.
The Passenger Pigeon is not without friends. Even extinct it has a certain charisma that has sparked the interest of modern day biologists. There may be hope yet, as discussions have started in the hopes of someday bringing the Passenger Pigeon back from extinction using the DNA obtained from long-dead specimens.
The Bachman's warbler is America's smallest warbler, only measuring four to four and a half inches in length. It was a bird that nested in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and South Carolina. It wintered in Cuba and Florida. It depended on seasonal flooding to provide it with appropriate nesting spots near the water. This is what ultimately made it so vulnerable to extinction as many swamps were drained so they could be built upon. Habitat loss was extensive in places like the Florida Keys. The last functioning nest was found in 1937, and the last official sighting of a live bird was as recent as 1961. Ornithologists believe that if any still exist their numbers are extremely low, under fifty adults. They are awaiting an official classification of extinction while bird watchers eagerly seek evidence of their continued existence.
Heath hens are a bird related to prairie chickens. Their story is a heart wrenching tale of redemption, failure, and plain old bad luck. They were once a common bird seen on the East Coast from Maine to Virginia but they were also considered delicious so hunting and encroaching human settlements decimated their population until John Audubon (of the Audubon Society) noted their plight in the 1830's. Still no one did anything about the problem until 1908 when only a small remnant population of fifty was left clinging onto their existence in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. It was then that 1600 acres were set aside for them to live their lives in a sanctuary. It appeared as if this effort was a worthy one. With no help from humans their numbers started to recover swiftly. By 1915 there was an amazing 2,000 birds living in the sanctuary. However the sanctuary was only one location and it suffered greatly when a fire broke out in 1916. There were surviving heath hens but they soon faced the harshest winter that locals could remember. Another bird, the goshawk, was forced by its own hunger into the area and they hunted the remaining heath hens. Finally poultry in the area subjected the birds to Blackhead Disease which wiped out 50% of the last few survivors. Astoundingly they still clung onto existence and made a partial recovery getting their numbers back up to 600 individuals before their last stand. Sadly, for unknown reasons they started to hatch offspring that had more males than females which was not good for breeding prospects. In 1927 only 13 survivors were left standing, only two of those were hens. The last heath hen seen alive, a male, died in the wild in 1932.
Dusky Seaside Sparrow
The dusky seaside sparrow was a curious bird with a curiously precise habitat. It lived on the East Coast of Florida where it nested in cordgrass. Suitable cordgrass however only grew in a very specific location - 10-15 feet above sea level. It could also grow at lower sea levels but this grass could not be nested in as it was too dense and moist for the birds. Because of this specificity the dusky seaside sparrow was never particularly abundant, however bird watchers and naturalists were paying attention to it. Its population was pretty untouched until DDT was sprayed in the area to kill mosquitoes. Its thought some of the poisoned mosquitoes may have been eaten by these feisty little insect-eaters, which in turn poisoned them. They could have probably survived but then they were faced with a series of tragic habitat loses that they could not cope with. In 1963 a mosquito control program was established that sought to kill off the mosquitoes surrounding the Kennedy Space Center. In order to do this they flooded the area, washing away any suitable nesting sites. These birds died out only for a second population to be found. Sadly the Florida Department of Transportation didn't think twice about building a highway through this last remaining marsh in order to connect the Kennedy Space Center to Disney World. Any remnant of marsh that was left eventually was drained for housing developments. The sparrows didn't stand a chance. In the 1970s efforts were made to undue past misdeeds by restoring natural water flow in the area. Although plants eventually returned it was too late for the sparrow. All the remaining dusky seaside sparrows were herded up and put into a captive breeding program. The only problem was all seven survivors were males. A breeding program involving a closely related species providing the female part of the equation failed. The last dusky seaside sparrow died in captivity in 1987.
The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is a story of intrigue and perhaps hope. These birds are some of the largest woodpeckers on earth, only being topped in size by another possibly extinct woodpecker, the imperial woodpecker of Mexico. It could grow up to twenty inches in length and needed a habitat suited for its size. Each pair required at least six square miles of dense swampy forest habitat in order to sustain themselves and their offspring who would be hidden in tree holes, carved out as much as 20 inches deep. They were impressive-looking birds who had a reputation amongst birders and hunters as being something spectacular to behold. President Theodore Roosevelt once said of them, "their brilliant white bills contrasted finely with the black of their general plumage. They were noisy but wary, and they seemed to me to set off the wildness of the swamp as much as any of the beasts of the chase." This may have been part of the reason for their extinction. Their beauty was so profound that collectors sought to have a specimen of their own and between collectors hunting them and their habitat being lost to logging companies these birds declined drastically in number as early as the 1870's. However they would occasionally be seen after this. The last good recorded sighting was of a single female, searching for a home in a recently decimated area, in 1944.
After this many thought the species was gone for good and it really looked that way until the Cornell Lab set up a massive search to find the elusive bird in 2004. They combed through eight states, covering 523,000 acres and to reward them they caught a glimpse of the impossible. In seven sightings in Arkansas, including one with video footage, they saw what they believed to be an ivory-billed woodpecker. Could it really be? Or were they fooled by the smaller but very similar looking pileated woodpecker? The footage is too blurry to tell, there are no clear photographs, and more searches were done by other people in the same area over the next five years coming up with nothing. A similar event happened in 2009 in Florida where one group of ornithologists were steadfast in their belief they had seen the ever elusive ivory-billed woodpecker but their peers were also unable to substantiate their claims in the following years. Nonetheless there are so many believers out there that there are now programs set forth in attempt to save this possibly nonexistent animal. Personally I am hoping these people did see a group of ivory-billed woodpeckers and that they are out there breeding and preparing for a surprising comeback but my pessimism has a harsher take on the whole matter. I guess I will leave the whole problem up to anyone else who wishes to continue to search.
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