The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird
in North America—maybe even the world.
In the first half of the 19th century,
estimates put the number between 3 and 5 billion, which
would have been at least one-third of the total bird population
of North America today.
But while flocks could block out the sky in 1833,
by 1900 there were no wild birds to
And by 1914 there were none alive even inzoos.
So what happened to make the population go
from billions to zero in less than a century?
To understand how passenger pigeons died, we need to understand how they lived.
Because… it was kind of our fault.
Passenger pigeons were native to eastern
North America and migrated between the regions around
the Great Lakes in the north and the Gulf of Mexico in the south.
They traveled in huge flocks with hundredsof thousands of pals.
When roosting or nesting,
it wasn ’ t uncommon for so many birds to perch on a tree that
the branches would snap under their combinedweight.
Sometimes birds would even perch on top of each other just
for a place to sleep.
This strength in numbers was their main defense
足以抵御天敌 狼 狐狸还有鼬鼠
against predators like wolves, foxes, weasels,
The local carnivores could eat themselves sick and
still not make a dent in the flock.
Ecologists call this predator satiation,
and it ’ s a pretty common defense tactic in both
plants and animals.
It ’ s why groups of oak trees produce almost no acorns for two years,
then on the third
year it’s an acorn party.
It ’ s also why cicadas reproduce periodically,
why salmon clog streams during their breeding season,
and why caribou travel in massiveherds. Now,
passenger pigeons worked together to raise
their young and to find food like nuts, seeds,
So when humans started cutting down forests to plant crops,
pigeons went after those grains
as you might guess, that made them pretty unpopular with farmers. But,
当我们开始捕杀鸽子作为商品 作为食物来源的时候 一切都变了
everything changed when we started hunting the pigeons as a commercial food source…
because they were apparently super tasty.
The expansion of train networks made it possible
for hunters to kill and ship the birds nationwide.
And it wasn’t hard.
Because they traveled in dense, low-flying flocks,
hunters could basically just swing
a stick and hit a couple birds.
To satisfy the demand,
hunters started using baited traps and controlled fires to kill
more birds in one go.
They even burned sulfur below pigeon nests to suffocate them,
collecting the bodies as
they fell from the trees.
The pigeons were apparently so tasty
that no one questioned whether eating birds killed
by fire and smoke was a good idea or not.
Even as late as the 1870s,
people thought there were so many pigeons that it wasn ’ t
possible to hunt them too much.
But once their flock numbers dipped too far, the situation got dire.
截止1900 纵贯中西部 只有动物园里有鸟儿生活
By 1900, the only surviving birds lived in zoos across the midwest.
And on September 1st, 1914,
the last captive passenger pigeon, named Martha after Martha Washington,
died at the age of 29.
Looking back, scientists have tried to figure
out why the passenger pigeon couldn ’ t survive
in smaller flocks — like,
maybe they couldn ’ t defend themselves or breed successfully.
In 2014, a group
of scientists published a paper suggesting that passenger pigeon populations
likely fluctuated even before modern humansarrived.
In fact, they may have been in a natural decline
that they had recovered from in past cycles.
But then humans came in, messed around,
and ended up being the last nail in the coffin.
These scientists used ecological models that generally say
that bigger populations mean
larger effective population size — which
is a measure of how many individuals are making
babies and contributing to the total genepool.
And the neutral theory of molecular evolution suggests
that the effective population size
should be linked to DNA variations called neutral mutations,
which don ’ t really affect
更多的成鸟 从理论上讲 意味着更多的中性突变
more breeding adults means moreneutral mutations randomly cropping up.. So,
large populations should result in high genetic diversity from bird
但是 根据对基因多样性 DNA的分析
But — according to their DNA analyses — genetic variation
between passenger pigeons was low,
despite how many there were.
Based on that fact,
the researchers estimated that the pigeon population dipped down in cycles,
which could explain why the billions
of birds seen in the 1800s seemed like not-so-distant
This idea was seemingly supported by pollen records
from the last 20,000-odd years suggesting
that acorn production varied enough that huge bird populations couldn ’ t always survive. However,
a 2017 study suggested that the lack
of genetic diversity came from rapid evolutionary
These scientists pointed out that there are plenty
of populations whose size doesn ’ t
correlate with genetic diversity.
And this might have to do with how new mutations can spread.
When organisms make sperm and eggs,
there ’ s a mix-and-match process where DNA gets swapped
around called recombination.
This makes it so every offspring has a unique set of genes.
But recombination involves swapping big chunksof DNA.
So as an advantageous gene spreads like wildfire, whole stretches of DNA spread.
That could explain why there doesn ’ t
seem to be a lot of genetic diversity in some big
populations — like passenger pigeons — despite what the neutral theory suggests.
So these researchers think that the pigeon population was always big,
and that their
huge drop-off in their numbers probably wasn ’ t normal…
so it was largely our fault.
It ’ s a gloomy thought that we caused the passenger pigeon extinction,
but it did inspire
the first wide-scale laws aimed at speciesconservation.
In the 1890s, there was almost no regulation
on hunting or killing any kind of wildlife.
But in 1900,
this looming extinction inspired a federal law prohibiting interstate shipping
of illegally hunted game.
13 years later, the Weeks-McLean Act added a ban
on hunting migratory birds in the spring,
when many species are breeding.
It also banned imports of wild bird feathersused for fashion. Today,
we have many such laws protecting
wildlife and we keep a much closer eye on endangered
species — so we can hopefully prevent more stories like the passenger pigeon.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
which is produced by Complexly — a group
of people who believe the more we understand about the world,
the better we are at being
Even if humans aren’t always so great.
If you want to learn more about all kinds
of animals that we still share the planet with,
check out Animal Wonders at youtube.com/animalwondersmontana!