Local universities honor centenary of iconic bird extinction

by Amanda Hutchinson and Christian Araos

This article is also published on Ithaca Week.

Cornell University and SUNY Cortland joined more than 190 institutions around the world in honoring the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Through educational programming and art installations, researchers are aiming to use the extinction as a teaching moment for conservation.

The passenger pigeon was known for its mass migrations and vibrant plumage. It went from having a population of at least two billion, one-fourth the total bird population in North America at the time, in the 1850s to extinct in 1914. Ron Rohrbaugh, assistant director of conservation science at the ornithology lab, said the birds’ demise was due to overexploitation via sport hunting and the restaurant trades.

“The thing that really sticks out in my mind is the rapidity and the scale in which we operated,” Rohrbaugh said. “The lesson in that is we can’t take anything for granted around us. We see abundance in wildlife populations but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.”

Works of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology lab’s artist-in-residence, Todd McGrain, are on display as part of the centenary, including a sculpture at the lab’s entrance. McGrain, currently in Africa, told Audubon Magazine that he is hoping his work as an artist raises awareness about rapid extinctions and the human impact on the environment.

“My hope to contribute to the growing efforts by organizations such as Audubon,” McGrain said. “Naturalists, scientists, ornithologists, environmentalists, teachers, and people in all parts of our society who are attempting to raise awareness about the current loss of species of plants and animals. Our deteriorating environment puts many fragile species under stress.”

In addition to McGrain’s works, the ornithology lab is also hosting “Moving Targets,” a collection of passenger pigeon-inspired pieces. Drawings and paintings depicting the birds’ beauty, magnitude, and demise are on display in the auditorium as well as in other institutions as part of the centenary.

Construction limited SUNY Cortland’s involvement with the centenary, as the museum housing the passenger pigeon exhibit is being renovated. Biology professor Larry Klotz said the university’s four specimens came from a 19th century natural history collection within the city. Once the museum renovations are complete this winter, he wants the passenger pigeons to be on display, even if no other exhibits are up. Jordan Nesbitt, one of Klotz’s students, is working on a program, which will be piloted at Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortland using passenger pigeons as an example for the conservation of other species.

“Our focus on this project is mainly education in schools,” Nesbitt said. “Kids coming out of middle school and high school already have conservation efforts in mind…They have a background in outdoor education and working with that is something that’s important to me because once the kids are aware, they’re going to share that if they find it interesting.”

SUNY Cortland is one of nearly 200 institutions working with Project Passenger Pigeon, an educational program based around the bird and headed by natural history writer Joel Greenberg. He hopes to use Project Passenger Pigeon and the centenary as a way to inspire change.

“We’re hoping that if you think about it, you might ultimately change something and be involved,” Greenberg said.

“Moving Targets” will be on display at the ornithology lab until the end of the year.

Click on the picture for the slideshow.

Click on the picture for the slideshow.

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