By Shawn Perich
On a winter day in London many years ago, I bought roasted chestnuts from a street vendor. While I’d often read about roasted chestnuts in American literature (as an English major), this was the first opportunity I’d had to try them. That’s because the American chestnut was gone from the landscape before I was born.
The American chestnut was a common native tree in the forests of the eastern U.S. and Canada and a prime source of mast—the annual crop of nuts that provides food for an array of forest wildlife. The tree was devastated by a blight introduced from Asia about 100 years ago. Today just a few dozen mature chestnuts remain within their original range. Fortunately, settlers planted chestnuts further west, outside their range, where the trees were able to escape the blight. Now researchers are attempting to cross American chestnuts with Asian chestnuts to develop a blight-resistant tree that can be used to repopulate the eastern forests. The new tree will be almost the same as the native, but will carry enough Asian genes to beat the blight.
The chestnut was a favored food of the passenger pigeon. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the bird’s extinction when Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The Jan. 6, 2014 issue of the New Yorker has a lengthy review of ‘A Feathered River to the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction” by Joel Greenburg.
The pigeon’s tale is both remarkable and tragic. Pioneer observers recorded massive flocks believed to contain hundreds of millions and even billions of birds, taking hours and days to pass and sometimes darkening the sun. Passenger pigeons existed in stunning abundance until about 1870 and then began a precipitous decline. By the turn of the 20th Century they were gone from the wild.
According to the New Yorker review, the demise of the passenger pigeon was caused by technological advances such as the telegraph and the railroad, which made it easier for market hunters to locate and access the flocks and then ship their kill to distant markets. At the same time, the vast original forests were logged off to meet the needs of a rapidly developing nation. Once abundant at a scale beyond imagination, the passenger pigeon disappeared so abruptly that “phantom” sightings of the mighty flocks were reported for years afterward from locations ranging from the Pacific Northwest to Chile.
If there was a silver lining to the extinction, the loss of the passenger pigeon inspired the early stirrings of the environmental movement. Speaking movingly about the bird in Congress, Iowa Republican John Lacey championed the passage of the Lacey Act in 1900. The first federal bird protection law, the Lacey Act remains a bulwark of wildlife conservation legislation.
The disappearance of the passenger pigeon still niggles uncomfortably at the edge of our collective psyche in the same way we are troubled other pioneer acts that devastated primeval North America. We pine for the wilderness lost. You might even say some of our conservation efforts, such as wildlife restoration and the preservation of wild places, are at least in part an act of redemption.
The passenger pigeon is at the center of a new field of endeavor referred to as de-extinction. The New Yorker reports of the efforts of Revive and Restore, an offshoot of Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation, to map the genome of the passenger pigeon and attempt to recreate it using a living relative, the band-tailed pigeon of the Pacific West. The Revive and Restore website has a long list of extinct animals considered candidates for de-extinction. They range from once-common North American species such as the Carolina parakeet, the heath hen and the ivory-billed woodpecker to Pleistocene mega fauna such as the wooly mammoth, wooly rhinoceros and the Irish elk.
It’s exciting to think about the possibility of bringing back creatures that disappeared from the Earth thousands of years ago. But is doing so really a good idea? Are we simply creating a bird or are we attempting to restore a native population? The New Yorker piece points out that flocks of passenger pigeons were known to destroy fields of buckwheat and other crops. Could a sustainable population of de-extinct passenger pigeons co-exist with modern agriculture? For that matter, could they co-exist with today’s mix of native and introduced wildlife species?
If de-extinction becomes a reality, a larger, even more troubling question looms. Will we still feel the need to modify human endeavors to protect endangered species? The Dec. 16 and Dec. 23 issues of the New Yorker contained a two-part story by environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert on a troubling topic—an ongoing, catastrophic extinction. Many scientists believe we are in a new geological epoch, which they are calling the Anthropocene. They are lobbying for official recognition. For now, though, the present epoch officially remains the Holocene, which began at the end of the last ice age.
The proponents of re-naming the present as Anthropocene argue human activities are changing the Earth on a geologic scale, from altering the composition of the atmosphere to leaving a radioactive “footprint” that will be discernible for millions of years. Human activity has accelerated the rate of extinction to a scale not seen since mammals replaced the dinosaurs. In fact, Kolbert’s new book “The Sixth Extinction” will be published in February.
Most of the extinctions now occurring are less dramatic than the loss of passenger pigeons. They are of amphibians, freshwater mollusks and other creatures that most of us don’t even know exist. You may say we won’t even miss them. But they are truly part of a mass extinction; it is fair to wonder if someday the surviving rats and cockroaches will say the same about us.