The Passenger Pigeon: a modern-day phoenix in the making?

I’m not sure if there is a more awe-inspiring bird with a more tragic story than the passenger pigeon. This is a species that went from being the most abundant bird on the planet in the 1800’s to completely extinct in 1914. It’s a little bit mysterious how it all happened, but the extinction was likely due to a combination of over-hunting (for food and recreation) and habitat loss. Some people were so surprised by the decline of the pigeons that they speculated that they had all flown into the Bermuda triangle (I guess we can’t prove it didn’t happen).

Like the mythical phoenix, passenger pigeons might soon rise up from the ashes and flourish across the North American sky if a group of scientists are successful in cloning the bird.

Hunters and a flock of passenger pigeons from "The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News," 1875. 

Hunters and a flock of passenger pigeons from "The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News," 1875. 

You might have heard about the possibility of reviving extinct species such as the woolly mammoth or gastric-brooding frog. Some scientists are also working on mapping the genome of the passenger pigeon, which can then potentially be used to clone them. This article is long, but very good, if you are interested in this process or the people behind it. 

This raises several philosophical and ecological questions and a quick browse through news articles, blogs, and comment sections reveals how controversial this topic is. I don’t consider myself an expert and I won’t get into all of the different aspects of this issue, but I’d like to highlight a couple of interesting points.

 Some species wouldn't be able to thrive in today’s world because the conditions or habitats they formerly lived in are gone. In these cases, all moral objections to cloning these species are irrelevant. However, the passenger pigeon might do just fine in the current environment, and we have access to hundreds of DNA samples, opening up the option of restoring them. Humans were responsible for their decline, and just as we value conserving endangered species, we ought to also value restoring extinct species when feasible, reasonable, and ideally when it would benefit their ecosystem.

An analogous case to extinction is how the definition of “death” has changed over the past century as we learn more about the body and the limits of medical technology. Technology has given us new terms like “brain-dead” and has moved back the line where we can safely say that someone is dead. Because we know some non-breathing people to be alive, even though they look dead, doctors are generally obligated to do what they can to help the person. Just as our understanding of the meaning of “dead” has evolved, so should the definition of “extinct.” As the definition changes, our responsibilities change.

Female and male passenger pigeon. John James Audubon, 1907. 

Ecologically, it might seem drastic and potentially disastrous to reintroduce a species that once numbered in the billions and darkened the sky with its enormous flocks. Things are going to change around here if the passenger pigeon comes back! First of all, we can’t predict how large the population would grow and when; the idea that it would return to its former glory is mere speculation. Secondly, this change would only be returning to how things were less than 200 hundred years ago! That’s hardly any time at all. Maybe someday the 20th century will be known as “that brief period of time that North America wasn’t covered in pigeons.” I hope so.

The counter-argument that rings true for me is the idea that cloning is expensive and the money could be spent on preserving habitat or other conservation efforts. However, the article addresses this. The passenger pigeon project is largely funded by tech millionaires, who probably wouldn’t fund habitat conservation. Additionally, the two strategies do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Another thought is that if restoring extinct species becomes feasible, there will no longer be a reason to protect endangered species. This is nonsense because if habitat loss or some other driver pushes a species to endangerment or extinction, simply cloning it will not resolve the issue. The difficult and expensive process of cloning, if it even becomes successful, is by no means a back up plan for endangered species. Habitat conservation and restoration, anti-poaching regulations, and other strategies will remain critical for many species even if cloning becomes a reality.

I think that a project like this could generate interest and inspiration in people that might not normally be conservation-minded. It could be a good way to garner support for other conservation efforts and educate people on endangered and extinct species.

The phoenix rises up after its fiery death. Friedrich Justin Bertuch, 1806.

The phoenix rises up after its fiery death. Friedrich Justin Bertuch, 1806.

I say, let the passenger pigeon rise! May they soar across the sky and carry the American spirit of perseverance on their wings!

Please share your thoughts, and check out more Feed the Data Monster posts! And if you’re a tech millionaire, give some more money to the passenger pigeon project!