A Cautionary Tale

The loss of the passenger pigeon isn’t just history. Even seemingly robust natural resources can prove to be fragile.

By Spencer Black

A few months back, Pam and I were enjoying the splendor of a Wisconsin autumn on a hike on the bluffs high above the Mississippi River when we chanced upon a stark reminder of the fragility of our environment.  

What we saw was a monument commemorating the extinction of the passenger pigeon.  That memorial reminds us of the forever loss of what was once the numerous bird species on the planet, but also that our natural resources are not limitless, no matter how abundant they may appear.

The last passenger pigeon on earth died in a zoo in 1914 although the last of the species in the wild was killed in 1902.  That the passenger pigeon could be driven to extinction by overhunting and habitat loss seems unbelievable.  Estimates are that there were 5 billion passenger pigeons.  They were so numerous that a nesting of the birds in central Wisconsin in 1871 covered 850 square miles.  Migrations darkened the skies.  One flock in 1866 in southern Ontario was a mile wide and 300 miles long and passed overhead for 14 hours.

Yet, within a half century, they were totally gone. 

Passenger Pigeon monument in Wyalusing State Park. It reads: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and the thoughtlessness of man.”

The monument to the passenger pigeon is a powerful environmental lesson that goes well beyond the loss of that species.  What we can learn from that history is that our natural resources, while plentiful, are not unlimited and our ability to abuse the environment often exceeds the ability of the environment to absorb those abuses.  It’s a lesson lost on short sighted politicians, past and present.  When the Ohio Legislature considered a bill to protect the birds, a committee of the Ohio Senate committee concluded “The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them.” 

One of Aldo Leopold’s most famous and poignant essays was written on the occasion of the dedication of the passenger pigeon monument in 1947.  He concluded, “We who erect this monument are performing a dangerous act … we have only now begun to doubt that it is more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing here today is publicly to confess a doubt whether this is true.”

That October hike was not the first time I had visited the passenger pigeon monument.  In 1997, I joined Gaylord Nelson in a ceremony to note the 50th anniversary of the passenger pigeon plaque.

In my remarks 23 years ago, I imagined how early European settlers viewed a relatively undeveloped Wisconsin. “Our natural resources must have seemed limitless.  If you plowed a prairie, there would always be another prairie to plow.  Yet, today, more than 99% of the millions of acres of those great grasslands are gone.  Our vast northwoods appeared inexhaustible, yet the great virgin pine forests of northern Wisconsin were almost entirely cut over by the end of the 19th century.”

I noted that we had made progress such as the Endangered Species Act, but I concluded “We no longer have the excuse of ignorance.  At a time when more, not less, effort is needed, some short sighted politicians want to roll back the endangered species act and punch roads through the last of the wilderness. So let this monument not be just a remembrance, but let it also be a call to action.  Save what is left.  Save it for those who will come next – 50 years hence, 250 years hence.”

Spencer Black served in the Wisconsin Assembly for a quarter century, ending with his retirement in 2011. Black is arguably the most consequential Wisconsin environmental policy maker during that period, authoring or being the key player in the state’s landmark recycling law, the Stewardship land conservation program and the protection of the free-flowing and scenic Lower Wisconsin Riverway, among other accomplishments. He served on the national board of the Sierra Club. A version of this piece originally appeared in the Cap Times.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “A Cautionary Tale

  1. The passenger pigeon is but one missinng tile from the mosiac of Wisconsin’s natural heritage.
    The sandhill crane is example of a tile that forty years ago was in danger of being lost. However, through the efforts of many citizens, sandhills made a tremedous comeback.
    Whooping cranes are an example of an attempt to replace a missing tile. While the jury is still out, its furture looks good.
    A resounding success has been the re-introduction of wild turkeys to the Badger state.
    Likewise, timber wolves, once extripated, now are plentifull across the northern reaches of the upper midwest.
    The fate of both the Karner blue and monarch butterflies remind us that even to day important tile can shake loose and fall out.
    As stewards of the mosaic, we all have a part to play in protecting and restoring the broad sweep of Wisconsin’s natural heritage and each of its pieces.


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