Passenger pigeons were once the most numerous birds in North America, thought to number in the billions. They were beautiful creatures, larger and more colorful than their cousin, the mourning dove. Their tremendous and deafening nomadic flocks darkened the skies for hours, sending chickens to roost and panicking people and livestock. The adage safety in numbers could have been coined for passenger pigeons, for they were protected by the size of their flocks.
Yet the birds were no match for westward expansion and the burgeoning technologies of the 1800s. With the coming of settlers, a hungry nation added the tasty bird to its plate.
Locations of roosting flocks were communicated by telegraph, and railways could transport iced-down pigeon meat by the tons to markets and restaurants in cities. The once-stupendous number of birds fell to zero in 1914 when Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.
How could such a huge population disappear, with not even a small pocket of survivors?
This is among the questions to be answered by Claire Wayner on July 16, when the 2018 high school graduate talks about the birds and shows her short documentary, Flight to Extinction: The Conflict between American Progress and the Passenger Pigeon, at Kinder Farm Park.
The Princeton-bound graduate of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute is an active conservationist. President of her high school’s environmental club, she was named Chesapeake Bay Trust Student of the Year.
An expert birder, she has guided bird walks for the Baltimore Birding Weekend. Working with Lights Out Baltimore, an organization devoted to preventing bird collisions, she has lobbied against light pollution and prowled Baltimore sidewalks at daybreak to collect migratory birds that have flown into building glass, sending the few survivors to rehab.
She co-founded Baltimore Beyond Plastic, which worked to help ban polystyrene, the un-recyclable plastic used for take-out containers and to-go cups. The work paid off when Baltimore schools voted to replace foam trays with compostable ones and the city council unanimously approved a resolution to require businesses to phase out polystyrene products.
Bay Weekly caught up with the busy student for a preview of her program.
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Bay Weekly You’ve shown your film to several audiences. Has the response been surprising?
Claire Wayner Overwhelmingly. The passenger pigeon is unfamiliar. People often confuse them with carrier pigeons, the domestic birds that delivered messages during the World Wars. For a lot of people, this is their first exposure to the story.
Bay Weekly How do you get their attention?
Claire Wayner The documentary opens with an animation from another film, a simulation of a passenger pigeon flock and what it would have looked like in volume and scale and noise. It’s pretty lifelike, and it grabs your attention.
Bay Weekly What struck you most in studying this species?
Claire Wayner The scale of the population — and how quickly the extinction occurred. The flocks were so huge that people in the Midwest thought the apocalypse was coming. Europeans hunted the birds when they arrived and killed them to keep them away from crops, but the numbers didn’t really drop until the industrialization of hunting. Three to five billion birds just disappeared in less than a century.
Bay Weekly Have you seen specimens?
Claire Wayner I got to see some when I visited the avian collection at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. That visit is included in the film. I interviewed Chris Milensky, the collection manager, and he appears in the film several times.
Bay Weekly How did huge numbers help the species survive?
Claire Wayner The large flocks were baffling to predators such as hawks, which tended to target smaller flocks or individual birds.
Bay Weekly What other effects did such numbers have?
Claire Wayner They nested communally, and their sheer mass broke branches and knocked down entire trees with their weight, which opened up space in the forests for new growth. So their numbers were beneficial to the forests.
Mon. 7pm, Kinder Farm Park visitor center, Millersville; sponsored by Friends of Kinder Farm Park and the Anne Arundel Bird Club. $5 w/member discounts; refreshments served: www.kinderfarmpark.org.