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New Exhibit Remembers Passenger Pigeon 100 Years After Extinction

By Emma C. Cobb, Crimson Staff Writer

In the beginning of the 19th century, it was not uncommon for skies to blacken with flocks of passenger pigeons, some containing millions of birds. But despite their overwhelming numbers, the last living passenger pigeon, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

On Saturday, the Harvard Museum of Natural History opened a new exhibit to mark the 100th anniversary of Martha’s death and the extinction of the passenger pigeon. The exhibit, which was curated with help from a student at the College, seeks to encourage discussion about conservation in the U.S.

“It was a shock of an ending,” said Kerry M. Flynn ’14, a Crimson News and Design editor, when talking about the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Flynn helped the museum staff assemble the exhibit after reaching out to them last fall to see how they were planning to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the bird’s extinction.

Flynn, an environmental studies and public policy concentrator, discovered her interest in the passenger pigeon during her sophomore year, when she wrote a paper about its extinction. She said that she looked at the matter through a Harvard lens, researching efforts at the University to analyze the potential extinction of the passenger pigeon due to human activity.

“It was the first time American scientists realized people could cause extinction,” said Jennifer L. Berglund, the science and culture exhibit developer at the Natural History Museum.

The passenger pigeon was hunted in overwhelming numbers, and the deforestation of land destroyed its habitat. Being a gregarious animal, the passenger pigeon could not survive when the flocks began to dwindle. The populations were almost completely wiped out in the last two decades of the 19th century, drastically changing the American landscape.

The death of the passenger pigeon started conversation about conservation work in the U.S., which led to legislation to protect wildlife, like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

The museum will also launch a self-guided tour to explain the other animals in the museum’s galleries. The tour will include extinct species, endangered species, and success stories, animals that were endangered but are no longer.

“Museums like this are a place where you can tell this story in a very real way,” said Jane Pickering, executive director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. With 72 specimens, Harvard has one of the world’s largest collections of taxidermied passenger pigeons.

Harvard is not the only institution remembering the passenger pigeon this year. Yale, the Smithsonian, and other museums around in the U.S. are putting on exhibits about the species.

Pickering said she is hoping that remembering the passenger pigeon will draw attention species that are facing extinction.

—Staff writer Emma C. Cobb can be reached at emma.cobb@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emmaccobb.

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