The passenger pigeon became extinct one hundred years ago. It was once the most abundant bird in North America. One flock in 1866 was recorded as being a mile wide and 300 miles long. It took fourteen hours to pass the observer and is estimated to have held over three and a half billion birds. A few decades later, numbers plummeted; in part because of changes in land use and deforestation, but primarily because of over-hunting. The passenger pigeon was a cheap and easy source of meat. On September 1st 1914, Martha, the last one, died in a Cincinatti zoo.
I grew up on the outskirts of Glasgow, in one of the new housing estates that bulged at the edge of the city; neat terraces and semi-detached homes for the aspirant working class. At the end of our street was a burn running through a gully with some scrub woodland and beyond that farmland and then some woods and then the moors that ran north towards Loch Lomond. As a kid the burn was my playground, and as I grew up my range gradually extended all the way out to the moor. I was into birds, in that geeky pre-pubescent way: a member of the Young Ornothologists Club and almost a twitcher (though the term hadn’t been invented in the early 70s).
What I remember from those years is the incredible variety of bird species, which I’d record when I set out after school and at weekends with my binoculars and guidebook. They were mostly the small, sparrow-sized kind (around then DDT was having a big impact on raptors) but dazzling nonetheless: yellowhammers, corn buntings, green and gold finches, linnets, stonechats, chiffchaffs, pied flycatchers – the list would go on. Writing it down now feels like relearning a forgotten poem, and I can still recognise most of those birds when I see them. Except that now I rarely do.
With evolution, species come and go. Scientists have a term for this natural rise and fall through geological time: the background extinction rate. This refers to species loss in the period before the impact of human civilisation, when for example, on average, every 400 years a single species of bird might become extinct. Conservative estimates put current extinction levels for all species at over a hundred times higher than the background rate. Other estimates say that the level is thousands of times higher. All agree that human activity is causing what has come to be known as the Sixth Mass Extinction.
A couple of examples:-
The Pyrenean ibex, a species of wild goat with spectacular horns, once graced the craggy slopes of the Cantabrian mountains and the Northern Pyrenees. In January 2000, because of habitat decline and over-hunting, it joined its neighbour, the Portugese ibex, in becoming extinct.
Whilst not yet extinct, the northern white rhinoceros, which used to hang out in the grasslands and savannah woodland south of the Sahara desert, is no longer to be found in the wild. In the 1970s there were still hundreds roaming free. There are now seven left, in captivity and heavily guarded against the poachers who would kill them for their horns.
Of course, there has been a reaction to such extinctions, and in some cases concentrated effort on the part of governments and NGOs: declines have been halted and species reintroduced. In Scotland we can be proud of schemes that have reintroduced sea eagles and red kites, and ospreys – there’s not much to beat the sight of an osprey in the spring, swooping feet first into a loch and then struggling back into the air with its prize, a flailing trout. You can watch them do that at various sites within a few miles of any city in Scotland. And more recently, a beaver population has been re-established in Argyll to complement the ‘unofficial’ beavers who, for the past decade or so, have been quietly recolonising the River Tay.
So it’s not all bad news. And yet, despite such local successes, the global story is one of increasing alarm. In his book, The Great Animal Orchestra, musician and naturalist Bernie Krause gives an account of the forty years he has spent recording the sounds of the natural world. His archive is a record of decline:
‘A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening. Little by little the vast orchestra of life, the chorus of the natural world, is in the process of being quietened. There has been a massive decrease in the density and diversity of key vocal creatures, both large and small. The sense of desolation extends beyond mere silence.’
How do we process this reality? How do we cope with the desolation that “extends beyond mere silence”? Helping those who work to redress the balance is one way. In Scotland, for example, there’s Trees for Life, a charity devoted to restoring the Caledonian forest, who can be supported with donations and with practical help as a volunteer. Political pressure can also be applied. Under the EU Habitat Directive, all member states are legally bound to consider the reintroduction of once native species. Our politicians need to be reminded of this at all levels, whether at Holyrood or Westminster.
Underpinning both responses is the call to educate ourselves as to what’s really going on. The Sixth Mass Extinction is not just happening to faraway species like the rhinoceros or the ibex, it’s happening on our doorsteps, in some cases literally: the last thirty years has seen a 70% drop in the UK house sparrow population.
For those that have already gone, all we can do is grieve. The eco-theologian Thomas Berry suggests that “our primary need for the various life forms of the planet is a psychic, rather than a physical need.” He believed that “to wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice.” It’s important to find a way to mourn such losses and, since 2011, a growing coalition of artists, writers and educators have begun to create a forum for expressing that grief. Remembrance Day for Lost Species is an annual and international event, held on the last day of November. The organisers invite anyone who wishes to participate to create their own act of remembrance or to take part in an event happening in their area. Check out their web page for more information: https://www.facebook.com/internationalremembrancedayforlostspecies
I live in rural Dumfriesshire, but my mum still lives in the same house I grew up in and the burn in the gully is still there, though the area beyond has changed dramatically. The farmland has gone, replaced by streets of ever larger and more expensive homes. A large concrete water reservoir has been constructed in the woods and sections of the moor have been drained for more housing. It’s a familiar story of ‘progress’. The edgeland birds that so enchanted me as a boy may not yet be extinct, but their decrease in numbers has been so comprehensive that my daughters, the age now that I was then, will never see such a richness. As the organisers of Remembrance Day for Lost Species say, “how can we begin to act effectively, if we do not begin by engaging with grief.”
Paul Fleischman ‘The Passenger Pigeon’ in I Am Pheonix (1985)
Bernie Krause The Great Animal Orchestra (2012)
Thomas Berry A Dream of the Earth (1988)