Newspaper Editorials on the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon
When Martha, a passenger pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo, drew her last breath on Sept. 1, 1914, her death marked the extinction of her species. A bird once so numerous its large flocks blotted out the sun during its migrations was decimated by humans. People shot down the birds by the thousands for sport or target practice, a commercial meat industry killed them by the hundreds of thousands, and deforestation deprived the passenger pigeon of its habitat and food supply.
Such wanton destruction troubled some thoughtful people in 1914. The following two newspaper editorials are good examples. The first takes solace in the hopeful thought that the example of the passenger pigeon’s extinction will teach humanity to better protect endangered populations of other animals. The second editorial is darker, pursuing the thoughts of Darwin and Nietzsche and wondering what sort of future humanity’s destructive impulses will create—and this just weeks after the cataclysm of World War I had begun.
This editorial was printed by the Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan) on Sept. 8, 1914:
Last Carrier Pigeon
In a cage in a public park at Cincinnati, the last survivor of a dying race is perishing, says The Indianapolis News. Its death, perhaps, is not a matter of great importance, nor is it, at the same time, without its significance. When the veteran passenger pigeon in the Cincinnati cage breathes its last the species dies with it. Fifty years have not passed since these birds were numbered by the millions. Their swift flights darkened the skies, and a day’s length, from dawn to dark, did not suffice at times to mark the passing of a single flock. Today only one remains. In less than half a century the race has become extinct.
The dying bird in Cincinnati is thirty years old. When it winged its first flight its fellows still were numerous. They flew in countless legions from the Gulf to the Lakes and vast flocks of them were to be seen in the fields and meadows of Indiana. Men now of middle age saw them, in their boyhood, in numbers still amazing. When this last survivor, however, was first made prisoner, the passenger pigeon was passing. In the brief lifetime of a single bird the race had been effaced. Ruthless slaughter had wrought its havoc and only a drooping captive survived.
Naturalists have sought in vain the country over for a pair from which the race might be revived. The offer of generous reward failed even to discover a mate for the lonely prisoner. And now, even for her, the end has come. But the fate that has befallen this race has not been without some compensation. It drew attention, at least, to the necessity for protecting our native birds from indiscriminate slaughter. And from laws resulting, projected merely as means of protection, we have gone still another step until, today, we do whatever we can, not alone to protect the birds, but to increase their numbers.
We have learned a good lesson and, though we gained our knowledge at the expense of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the passing of the species has not been in vain. It is safe to say that if human means can prevent, this tragedy of the bird kingdom will not be repeated.
This editorial was printed by the Washington Post and reprinted by the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on Oct. 1, 1914:
The interminable struggle for existence is nowhere more starkly defined in words, as scientifically relentless as the fact itself, than in the writings of Darwin. Led on by the irresistible force of logic he depicted the ceaseless battle, out of which he was led to believe issued the promise of better things in the so-called survival of the fittest. Where nature pursues her inexorable course, the conclusion may be accepted, although the process must call for such unsatisfying thoughts as those in which Darwin himself indulged, as he remarked the apparently useless waste that accompanied the evolution of a better species.
So far as can be seen, there is but one factor that has ever been introduced to thwart and mar the natural development. That factor is man. Whatever may have been the slow operations, occupying ages in some instances, to bring about the annihilation of a given form of life, it can safely be said that no species has ever destroyed itself. Cataclysmic occurrences doubtless operated at times, where the mutual warfare might otherwise have left the conflict of contending elements an uncertain issue. Thus perished certain of the forms of life whose remains are found in the fossil formations buried beneath the advancing cold of the great ice age. Again, the struggle of one kind of animal life with another brought triumph over immense areas in favor of the stronger, while lands cut off from the conflict continued to perpetuate the weaker. Australia is an instance, with its living specimens of animals long since extinct in every other part of the world.
But man is the great exterminator. Within a generation he reduced the countless herds of buffalo that once roamed the Western prairies to a few hundreds, now preserved in the national parks. And at the present moment the last passenger pigeon in the world is said to be dying in the Cincinnati zoo. This bird, in the days of Audubon, and later, was so plentiful as to blot out the sun for hours in its annual migration and to break the limbs of the forests at night where it found its roosting places. One lone bird in the Cincinnati zoo, in [her] thirtieth year, is the sole living representative of those myriads.
The buffalo, the passenger pigeon, all of the conquered, fell before powerful destroyers. Not one, however, brought about its own extinction. Man alone fights himself. That this strange habit will ever bring about self-annihilation is not to be expected. Nevertheless, the change may be wrought in spirit, if not in form. Then will come the triumph of the superman, that Nietzschian creature which apotheosizes war, and finds the consummation of its highest morality in the destruction of the weak and helpless.