Passenger Pigeon broadens definition of extinction

The last passenger pigeon died September 1, 1914, a century ago. Her name was Martha and she died alone in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Unlike past mass extinctions (think dinosaurs), caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us — humans.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Passenger Pigeon presentation at the Woodchuck Lodge, the cabin where Activist and Naturalist, John Burroughs, lived from 1910-1920.

We learned Burroughs (1837-1921) grew up when the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America. As a boy he was spellbound at the spectacle of untold thousands of them descending on his Roxbury, New York farm. He wrote, “The naked beechwoods would suddenly become blue with them, and vocal with their soft childlike calls. The very air times seemed turned to pigeons.”

The passenger pigeons flew in large colonies. LARGE. So large they oftentimes darkened the sky as they soared and circled overhead. The ostensible abundance of pigeons aroused people to freely reveal their baser instincts of gluttonous devastation. From 1800-1900, people slaughtered the pigeons in every way imaginable.

Even people who hated to kill any living thing were sucked into the unfolding extinction of the pigeon, through complacency. Burroughs, probably conscience struck, wrote later, “In the fall of 1876, out hunting for grouse, I saw a solitary cock sitting in a tree. I killed it, little dreaming that, so far as I was concerned, I was killing the last pigeon.”

Burroughs didn’t kill the last passenger pigeon in 1876, but by 1900, there were only a handful left. The last confirmed sight of a pigeon in flight was in Indiana, April 3, 1902. Burroughs, aroused from complacency went on to lobby for what later became the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, protecting all nongame birds today.

I contemplate this whole scenario next to my knowledge of what I read in Science and Health, first written by Mary Baker Eddy in the 19th century.

The idea of a different kind of extinction comes to thought. From 21st Century Science and Health, “Sputnik and NASA changed the world view when launching into outer space. Setbacks happened, but courage set the precedence. Consequently, outgrown philosophies, based on what physical senses say, have become extinct. The physical law of gravity can’t define us. Space exploration, thought expansion, bravery, and open-mindedness, continues.”

Interestingly, the philosophy: once an animal is extinct it is gone forever—is becoming extinct.

September’s Smithsonian Magazine reported, “A handful of naturalists and molecular biologists believe that we could one day undo what happened by re-engineering the bird’s genome from preserved specimens and a closely related extant species.” The de-extinction proposal is being debated.

I now reflect on this from Science and Health, “We want to carry the day against physical enemies—even to the extinction of all belief in materialism, evil, disease, and death. Pure metaphysics insists on the fact that God is all, therefore, temporal substance is nothing but an image in human mind.

“The Science of being shows it to be impossible for infinite Spirit or Soul to be in a finite body, or for person to have intelligence separate from our Maker. It is a self-evident error to suppose that there can be such a reality as biological animal or vegetable life, when such life always ends in death. Life is never for a moment extinct. Therefore Life is never structural. Life isn’t established through levels of organization, and it is never absorbed or limited by its own formations.”

passenger pigeon swarm

“Christian Science requires us to improve our intentions. Hatred is to become extinct through kindness. Lust is conquered with purity. Revenge is triumphed over with charity, and deceit is defeated with honesty. Starve errors in their early stages if you would not cherish an army of conspirators against health, happiness, and success.” Science and Health

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