"The passenger pigeon needs no protection.…. The snipe too, like the pigeon will take care of itself, and its yearly numbers can not be materially lessened by the gun" (From an 1857 Ohio Senate report to protect birdlife.)
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of a very special bird. Martha died on September 1st 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo, the worlds last last passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius).
The story of the passenger pigeon is quite a unique and sad tale. They were once arguably, the most numerous birds in the world, numbering in the billions all across America. Ornithologist John Audubon is said to have watched a flock flying past for three days. This abundance made both adults and chicks easy targets for hunters and game shooters alike. Despite this the birds were not strictly hunted to extinction. Once their numbers were reduced from billions to millions and then thousands, they became harder to harvest in large numbers and therefore unprofitable for hunters. Yet their numbers continued to decline. Not only had humans made a massive impact on passenger pigeon numbers, they also impacted habitat across the country. The reasons for the large flocks became apparent as smaller groups failed to breed and find new food sources effectively. Disease also seemed to impact the small remaining population and the last confirmed wild passenger pigeon was shot in 1900.
A similar story followed in Australia with the last Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) dying in Hobart Zoo (as a result of neglect) on September 6th 1936.
Unfortunately it seems we are slow learners and species still go extinct on an all too regular basis, sadly many probably go unnoticed. We are currently right in the middle of a mass extinction event, in Australia mammals in the critical weight range (35 to 5500g) are particularly vulnerable. However the most recent Australian animal believed to have gone extinct is the tiny Christmas Island Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi). This little creature disappeared right before our eyes, its demise was well documented and the last living Pipistrelle was seen in August 2009. This was just three years after scientists flagged the declining population but due to policy and government inaction they had to watch it fade away completely. There are some good news stories, for example it looks like there may be a happy ending for Tasmanian Devils thanks to captive breeding efforts and careful planning. Although almost a 5th of vertebrate species are in serious danger of extinction, without conservation efforts this number would be much higher.