In this season of zombies and skeletons, know that there’s a small group out there working to bring back, aka “de-extinct,” passenger pigeons. Like “Jurassic Park,” but smaller and flying in gigantic flocks. What could go wrong?
Seriously, though, their efforts are a bit more like that to revive the American chestnut, which isn’t extinct but unable to produce seed in the wild. Unlike, say, velociraptors, passenger pigeons haven’t been gone that long, just since 1914. We have lots of feathers and taxidermied birds, including a few in a building I frequented at a former job. The pigeons also have some close living relatives, band-tailed pigeons, which would assist in recreating (resurrecting?) them.
Some estimate that we lost 20% (or more) of the total birds in this country when we wiped out the passenger pigeon. They were birds of the eastern forest, nesting in vast colonies in the Great Lakes region and migrating south to the Gulf states. The last wild nesting colony was near Petoskey, Michigan.
In a striking parallel, American chestnuts were a major food source for the pigeons. Some question whether one could be brought back without the other, although I think it’s important to consider the scale of “bringing back” here. Fifty chestnuts could likely get along just fine without the pigeons, and vice versa. A billion of each might have a problem.
Our eastern forests have rebounded in many places from where they were a century ago, so there would be more habitat for the pigeons now, although nothing like what there was originally. Surely a species present in such mind-blowing numbers – flocks that took days to pass – had ecological impacts that we can’t grasp. What else was lost with these birds? What else might be get back along with them?