May 3rd, 2017

Could we bring back the passenger pigeon? Should we?

The answer is “maybe.

But not easily. And the results would be unpredictable. But it was the second paragraph here that especially caught my interest:

Assuming that a living passenger pigeon embryo can be “resurrected” (or perhaps, some would prefer to say, created) using such technologies, many hurdles remain. Will the passenger pigeon nuclear genes be able to work with the mitochondria and other cellular structures? And even if a few birds survive to adulthood, could they ever survive in the wild? Researchers worry that thousands—and maybe millions—of passenger pigeons would be needed. After all, the gigantic flocks observed by the American colonists famously darkened the sky for days and nested in colonies of millions.

Intriguingly, archaeological research indicates that the passenger pigeon’s story might not be that simple. The bones of passenger pigeons are rare in pre-Columbian archaeological deposits, suggesting that the birds were scarce until colonial times. Ecologists now think that the vast flocks may have emerged only after a declining Indian population left enough acorns and other seeds and nuts for the pigeon population to build up. Because passenger pigeons are so distantly related to other species, and because pigeon reproduction and genetics are not well understood, attempts at resurrecting it are likely to be difficult.

That turns the usual “colonists bad, Indians (or rather, native Americans) good” message on its head, although the final demise of the passenger pigeon was indeed due to hunting by non-native Americans (Westerners, “the white man,” whatever).

Here’s another discussion of whether the pigeons can be successfully resurrected:

Revive & Restore plans to breed the birds in captivity before returning them to the wild in the 2030s. Novak says the initial research indicates that North American forests could support a reintroduced population. He hopes animals brought back from extinction—not just birds but eventually also big creatures like woolly mammoths—will draw the public to zoos in droves, generating revenues that can be used to protect wildlife. “De-extinction [can] get the public interested in conservation in a way that the last 40 years of doom and gloom has beaten out of them,” he says.

Other experts aren’t so sanguine. They question whether the hybrid animal could really be called a passenger pigeon. They doubt the birds could survive without the enormous flocks of the 19th century. And they question Novak’s belief that the forests could safely absorb the reintroduction. “The ecosystem has moved on,” says Temple. “If you put the organism back in, it could be disruptive to a new dynamic equilibrium. It’s not altogether clear that putting one of these extinct species from the distant past back into an ecosystem today would be much more than introducing an exotic species. It would have repercussions that we’re probably not fully capable of predicting.”

That last statement absolutely seems like common sense. What’s more, the article’s description of the way it used to be when the pigeons were numerous makes them sound like—well, like hazardous pests:

In forest and city alike, an arriving flock was a spectacle—“a feathered tempest,” in the words of conservationist Aldo Leopold. One 1855 account from Columbus, Ohio, described a “growing cloud” that blotted out the sun as it advanced toward the city. “Children screamed and ran for home,” it said. “Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped on their knees and prayed.” When the flock had passed over, two hours later, “the town looked ghostly in the now-bright sunlight that illuminated a world plated with pigeon ejecta.”

Nesting birds took over whole forests, forming what John James Audubon in 1831 called “solid masses as large as hogs-heads.” Observers reported trees crammed with dozens of nests apiece, collectively weighing so much that branches would snap off and trunks would topple. In 1871 some hunters coming upon the morning exodus of adult males were so overwhelmed by the sound and spectacle that some of them dropped their guns. “Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, accompanied by as many steamboats groaning off steam, with an equal quota of R.R. trains passing through covered bridges—imagine these massed into a single flock, and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar,” the Commonwealth, a newspaper in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, reported of that encounter.

The pigeon flocks were awesome in every sense of the word. But is it any surprise they were hunted to extinction? Not only were they as intrusive as described, but they were tasty, and were thought to be inexhaustible in number.

28 Responses to “Could we bring back the passenger pigeon? Should we?”

  1. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Men of ‘science’ high in intelligence but poor in wisdom will not rest until they’ve created disastrous circumstance. And then, once all have died that remember the disaster, they’ll do it again.

  2. parker Says:

    This idea, if at all possible, has (obviously) unintended consequences. The passenger pigeon is extinct, leave it that way. On this earth species come and go.

  3. zat Says:

    After numerous failed attempts and billions of dollars spent the scientists will finally succeed. And they will admit that their little story of the public running to the zoo in droves to see a boring pigeon and thus protecting wildlife was not quite the truth. And then they will proudly eat the truly last passenger pigeon in front of everyone’s eyes. So tasty!

  4. Brian Swisher Says:

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know how this goes – first it’s passenger pigeons, then it’s mammoths, and then it’s FRICKIN’ TYRANNOSAURS STAMPEDING THROUGH OUR CITIES!!!!!

  5. Frog Says:

    As I understand it, the enormous p.p.flocks fed mostly on acorns on their annual southern migration. At other times of year, they ate other seeds. Are we to accept a massive ingestion of corn and wheat by a poop-producer? Just because a few biologists think it would be neat? Who pays for the crop losses? Not the biologists!

  6. blert Says:

    Just re-introducing wolves into the lower 48 states has proved to be a disaster.


    The reason that the passenger pigeon was driven extinct: it stayed roosted at night.

    This made it ‘free chicken’ — you could pick them off even with a slingshot.

  7. OldTexan Says:

    “Could we bring back the passenger pigeon? Should we?”

    No! I am a bird hunter, quail, pheasant and dove and habitat management is the key to sustaining wild bird populations along with the proper balance of limits, each day during the hunting seasons.

    There are between four and five hundred million mourning doves in the U.S. and we shoot between 50 and 70 million each year. It all depends upon the weather and food for the doves which are a type of pigeon or pigeons are a type of dove.

    The incredible billions of passenger pigeons during the 1800’s was a strange occurrence and way beyond the carrying capacity for their habitat which was changing and shrinking. I suspect the rapid decline was also due to market hunting, loss of habitat, mainly chestnut trees which died off from blight and who knows what else.

    The mystery to me is how the hell did thy manage to reach zero population in such a short time and even if we could, would we want to see that cycle repeat once more with unintended consequences. With so much land around the Great Lakes where the Passenger Pigeons were super abundant why were there not some isolated flocks of pigeons in remote areas.

    I would suggest we live with the mystery and not mess with nature.

  8. Lee Says:

    I’m not convinced the passenger pigeon, if indeed the flocks were so enormous, were hunted to extinction. There had to be other environmental issues at play. I think Old Texan has a point with the Chestnut trees. I’ve often wondered if if some illness or some parasite. I thought maybe the starling crowded it out, but the starling was apparently introduced in 1890, while the steep decline of passenger pigeons happened between 1870 and 1890.

  9. Yankee Says:

    Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and those familiar with the 19th century pioneers will be well aware of another extinct species that we definitely do NOT want to bring back:

    Imagine being in the 1870s, with the sky turning black from a swarm of locusts (some the size of a state), devastating every green thing in its path. Thankfully, these are now extinct in North America.

    Locusts have been a plague since ancient times, and still sometimes occur in other parts of the world today.

  10. neo-neocon Says:

    If you read the links, they mention that people also destroyed their roosting places.

  11. Artfldgr Says:

    That turns the usual “colonists bad, Indians (or rather, native Americans) good” message on its head..

    and i for one do not understand this fetish for making all that lived live again, or even making all that live now, live forever…

    our universe will not last forever, so forever is not even theoretically possible without going back in time and going forwards again, but even that would not be forever in a finite universe, which we do live in.

    but WAY before that even becomes a billion year in the future worry
    our galaxy would be gone…
    but way before that…
    our solar system would be gone…
    and way before that…
    our planet would be gone…
    and way before that, nature will repeatedly in some way shape or form, make things quite inhospitable, bordering on uninhabitable, which might cross border making all the other points above MOOT

    maybe by then, we will have built our own places, but then, we would build our own animals..

    after all, with all this expertise, wouldn’t someday be the goal of biological replacing mechanical?

    its not unthunked… 🙂

    ranging from odd alien spaceships, to the cow that wants you to kill and eat it (thanks adams), and on and on…

    but regardless, the genetics of any animal on the planet cant be fixed, so, anything that changes anything in its environment, including what human civilization is doing to human evolution (it hasn’t stopped leftists), is a constant, the only constant… nothing above the atomic is constant, nor can it be fixed to be permanent in any way, and always slowly changes given physics (spontaneous particles, decay, etc).

    slowing down technology by slowing down economy/energy can have its own catastrophic outcomes… another ice age WILL come, maybe the heat will come, but either way, you want technology on your side for however long it passes… no? you certainly don’t want to come up short when the ice is nearing a mile thick…

    the deepest cores are about 800,000 years…(if you were wondering)
    [meaning it was warm enough then to make zero ice, and we have ice in some places building up for nearly a million years)

    ultimately space travel will make planet living not so good
    if you think it through, you will realize that once we are in space that is where we are safest… and once we are in space, destroying the earth is easy peasy

    so yeah, lets waste money resurrecting dead creatures and pretend they are the same, which they wont be.

    but if you worry about birds, and worry about lizards..
    what will you do with a few extra hominids that might have issues
    will cromagnon want their french property back (blood and soil multiculturalism and all that)

    the funny thing is that the state cant stop what morals could…

    you ever see what humans have done to the pidgeon?
    i mean ever looked up the rare breeds that they trade and show?
    some of them cant live but for man…
    with genetic control at the level your talking here

    the next very tiny step is to change code and see what you get on an industrial scale… a million chickens laying a million experiments daily for one year…..

    i should have been a futurist science fiction writer (comedian)

    you realize that with such control, a woodpecker in peckwood would in a peckerwoods wood, pecker wood with his wooden pecker??

    Shoot me – before that gets worse…

  12. Philip Says:

    It sounds like you’re making a good case that shooting all those pigeons was necessary to save the trees from being crushed under their weight! In that case, I think we might rejoice that the pigeons were dealt with successfully.

  13. Frog Says:

    Old Texan-
    I’m a bird hunter also. But pass. pigeons ingesting chestnuts is a bit much for me. That’s OK for turkey, but not pigeons.

  14. OldTexan Says:

    Frog, that’s what I thought until I found this about pigeons eating acorns.

    All I have ever fond in crops of doves were seeds, mostly sun flower and some other small ones. I was surprised to see 16 acorns taken out of a pigeon’s crop.

  15. F Says:

    Neo, I am constantly amazed at the far-out things you come up with! But in this case you have outdone ourself. And I find it interesting to contemplate the return of the passenger pigeon, as I have felt the collective guilt we were all meant to feel when we learned in our youth of their extinction.

    I guess I’d like to see a scientist (or team of) try to do this mostly because of what they would learn from the effort. Would I like to see the sky darkened by massive flocks passing overhead? No. But it would be “fun” to see small flocks here and there.

    Then again, we do not understand the impact such a development would have on the ecology. Perhaps the nay-sayers among us are right: leave well enough alone.

    But a single example, to see if the process can be made to work? Definitely.

  16. Surellin Says:

    All my life, I’ve wanted three things – man on the moon, flying cars and the resurrection of the mammoth. I’m one for three and getting older. Let’s shoot for two out of three. Today the passenger pigeon, tomorrow the mammoth!

  17. Frog Says:

    This is not about the so-called fun of bringing an extinct species back. We have a duty to consider the full picture, the entire ecological context. Remember what happened when rabbits were introduced to Australia? Recall that most native Hawaiian bird species are disappearing by displacement from introduced mainland species.
    We can’t just pay multi-million dollar genomic games and then tell the product “Good Luck out there and have fun”.
    Playing God is never a good idea.

    Old Texan: acorns in quail crops are startling enough. Hard to imagine that ingestion, given the small beaks of quail. Never mind the crops having to break down the acorn shells! That’s like us swallowing a bunch of unshelled pecans and expecting nutritional benefit.

    But chestnuts in mourning dove-sized birds boggles my mind! That would be akin to finding a whole prickly pear fruit in a Gambel’s quail’s crop! Which, for all ye who know not prickly pear cactus and quail, has not happened to my knowledge.

  18. huxley Says:

    Prickly pear are “tunas” right? Those pits are bigger than avocado seeds!A w hole family of quail would have to get together around the festive table and carve them up like a turkey. I hope never to see such a thing.

  19. Sergey Says:

    This is doable, as far as I can say as evolution geneticist. Is it wise? This is better to ask an ecologist.

  20. carl in atlanta Says:

    Memory can be such a strange thing. This thread triggered an old, dim memory I have from the very early 1970’s when I first saw this somewhat odd historical marker about the Cherokee nation’s “Center of the World” site near Hartwell GA (in NE Georgia near the SC border):

    The triggers? The subject of passenger pigeons, of course (I remembered seeing a marker about their huge swarms on some historical marker, somewhere in Georgia). That was one trigger. But there was also this passage that Neo quoted: “Observers reported trees crammed with dozens of nests apiece, collectively weighing so much that branches would snap off and trunks would topple.”

    See the text at the bottom of the photo at the link (or read it below). Until today I hadn’t had a thought about this subject at all in 45 years, but Google took me right to that Hart County marker which mentions, merely in passing, that “This site was also a noted roost in the days when the now extinct passenger pigeons “migrated here in the autumn in such numbers that ‘their weight broke the tree limbs’.”

    Probably a flashback “from back in the Day”, but Wow that felt good! Thanks Neo.

  21. Frog Says:

    There is way too much deference to experts.
    Ask an ecologist? That is like asking a communist about capitalism. Ecologists are not fonts of wisdom. They have grotesque biases. Neo will object, “Not all of them!” but I say most are categorically Left-wing biased, since management of ecosystems extrapolates to management of the human species.
    Ask yourself, and do not fear your common sense, your ability to seek, accrue and evaluate data. Be brave!

  22. DNW Says:

    “Could we bring back the passenger pigeon? Should we?”

    As you imply in your last paragraph, that may depend on how tasty they really were.

    Hunting “doves” seems like a pointless business unless you are just look for a moving target. Cannot imagine that there is much more meat on them than on woodcock, which are hardly worth the effort to carve up.

    Something in much greater quantities than grouse, yet smaller in size than pheasants or ducks, might fit the bill, for a fall afternoon’s ramble with shotgun.

    Both quail and pheasants seem to be in steep decline for the foreseeable future; at least in this area.

    It would be good to have something to take their place. That said, the passenger pigeons don’t look all that enticing.

  23. OldTexan Says:

    DNW, you are so right about hunting doves, I helped organize a dove hunt here in Texas for the first Saturday of the season and last year we had 27 people, 26 men and 1 woman and while most live in Texas some came in from out of state Alabama, Ohio, New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma, we reserved rooms in Brownwood Texas, had dinner in a reserved back room at the Section Hand Restaurant, got up and left at five the next morning to drive over 60 miles Northwest of Brownwood to shoot from sunup until 10:00, drove 60 miles back for lunch, 60 miles back out at 4 pm to shoot until sundown and it was great.

    The limit is 15 doves and about half of us shot the limit and the whole group together shot about 275 doves. That number of doves would yield about 18 pounds of usable meat. We rough estimated the amount spent by the group on shells, license, housing, food, and transportation and and that comes to over $12,500 for the group which makes the price of a pound of doves just under $700. It’s not about the meat and we have been doing this for over 20 years and we will be in Abilene Texas this year the first weekend of September to do it again.

    We are not all red necks either, about 80-20 Republican – Democrat. Two ivy league lawyers, several medical docs, several PhD educators, lots of masters and then welders and diesel mechanics. Age from 16 to 89 years old and nice ethic mix, mostly white, hispanic and one black. Our one woman, a daughter who had joined us before left the Monday after the hunt for NYC where she is now working for Orvis.

    We mostly shoot double barrel shotguns, side by side and over/under with a few pumps and semi-autos and we don’t tolerate alcohol until the guns are empty and cased up.

    Bird hunting does not make much sense at all, one year my Brittany and I made the trip to Northern Oklahoma, one mile South of Kansas to hunt pheasant which required $165 out of state license fee for pheasant, six hour drive and two days of heavy walking for two pheasants and it was an excellent trip.

    By the way, in some areas thanks to hard work on the part of land owners and Wildlife Departments the quail and pheasants are slowly coming back. Southwest Oklahoma was great in the 1950’s and it is starting to become good once more and I hope to take my current Brittany and shoot with friends there this fall.

    I just wrote to much about not much since it does not make sense to spend that much money and time for a few ounces of meat. However I hope to make it for a least a dozen more years since I am only 72 this year.

  24. DNW Says:


    Pheasants and ducks (and I guess rabbits) used to be the “working man’s” field sport when I was a young boy in the Great Lakes State.

    If you had property in the North Woods, and the means, or a family tradition of rifle ownership and use (as opposed to shotgunning) then of course, deer were the game of choice – as was the case in our family.

    But for the typical blue collar guy who got out on a weekend to hunt, it was during a trip to a nearby county, not too far beyond the municipal limits, where there were still old family farms and state game areas within easy driving distance.

    Quail were another more specialized matter, and as I recall with less than certainty, those who hunted them were likely the owners of the old fields and farms the city guys would be allowed to use for pheasants and rabbits.

    What happened to the quail and the pheasant populations is a matter I have looked into but not pursued very far. I have deer in my “suburban” yard nowadays, whereas back when the area was much less developed, and I was just a little boy visiting occasionally, there were always bobwhite and sometimes pheasants, but never, ever a deer.

    It’s probably not just farming methods or population cycles. As a child I also never saw a coyote or fox in the area; and racoons were rare too. Now they are all pests. And though the area was much less developed overall, every family had dogs to keep the competing vermin down, and many of the old codgers were still plowing up their couple of acres.

    The first time I had ever heard of hunting doves was when I lived in Friendswood outside of Houston. At that point though, I was seeking a different type of game in Gilleys.

  25. OldTexan Says:

    DNW, I grew up in an area where we had a lot of game and started hunting in the late 50’s. Over the years I became a city dweller in several states and did little shooting and in the early 190’s took up bird hunting again.

    What I think happened through our whole nation is the small farmers were bought out and where the family farms were diversified the larger farmers pulled down the fences, gardens and small plots and planted fields road to road with the same mono-crops which did away with the margins of brush and small groves of trees which make habitat for game birds and other critters.

    At the same time we are seeing deer and turkey come back in the last few decades where they had been taken out by hungry people in the 1930’s feeding their families. Lots of species like doves and deer get along well in suburban areas and they have repopulated to the point the deer are almost pests but I love seeing them on the edges of our town in the early mornings.

    When game returns of course we get more predators and now here in Texas we have coyotes, bobcats and some mountain lions where they were gone for the last 70 or 80 years. Coming back to the theme of Neo’s posting about the Passenger Pigeons we need to appreciate what we have and not mess with nature since there really appears to be a natural balance thing going on.

  26. richardaubrey Says:

    So if you’re a farmer and an urban hipster’s dream of a sky black with passenger pigeons lands on your field….
    Suppose we brought back mammoths. And a couple are pushing over your barn. It would be a federal crime to even yell at them, much less use an air horn or firecracker.
    How stout would the school bus stop cages have to be if we brought back, say, the dire wolf?

  27. DNW Says:

    Old Texan,

    Been meaning to comment on your interesting remark but didn’t have the chance.

    At the same time we are seeing deer and turkey come back in the last few decades where they had been taken out by hungry people in the 1930’s feeding their families.

    It is no doubt true that whitetail are returning “big time” to places in states like Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas. (As well apparently, as migrating into “Muley” territory)

    But my guess would be, that as a general rule, gameworthy numbers of whitetails were hunted out in the upper south well before the depression years.

    Of course I could just look it up instead of guessing.

    Nonetheless, I have a monograph/partial autobio of a great grandfather who describes moving west as a boy in the years after the war. Probably around 1875 or so. (They were just moving from the south east of the state to an area west of Springfield maybe 150 miles?)

    Anyway, a memory that stuck with him his entire life – and he hunted the Black Hills as an adult – was the sight of a huge buck standing in the middle of a glade they were passing one morning. Apparently there were not a lot of impressive specimens left in the St Francois county at that time. I’m not sure what a little further south, Jed Clampett had there been such a fellow, would really have had to hunt between then and 1960. LOL Maybe that’s why Granny talked of ‘possums and owls eggs … whew

    But now the hunting magazines which litter the camp in November are filled with articles on the “Bucks of Missouri” and Texas, and etc, etc.

    “Lots of species like doves and deer get along well in suburban areas and they have repopulated to the point the deer are almost pests but I love seeing them on the edges of our town in the early mornings.

    Last year or the year before I had one pulling tomatoes off of the vines that were growing in patio pots.

    When game returns of course we get more predators and now here in Texas we have coyotes, bobcats and some mountain lions where they were gone for the last 70 or 80 years. Coming back to the theme of Neo’s posting about the Passenger Pigeons we need to appreciate what we have and not mess with nature since there really appears to be a natural balance thing going on.

    I think that passenger pigeons would probably do no better than Chukars or Hungarian pats. That is, Ok under the right conditions.

    The only reason there are so many Canadas crapping everywhere on golf courses is because you cannot kill them at will.

    I don’t see an Australian rabbit style problem ensuing. But it’s not anything I would invest much emotional energy in supporting if my neighbors got alarmed over the prospect.

  28. OldTexan Says:


    Good observations about the chukker and huns about 12 years ago I hunted both birds as release bird around Abilene but to my knowledge we don’t have any sustaining populations her in Texas.

    What we do have a lot of is feral Axis Deer, a species a bit larger than out local white tails and they can be found all over the Texas Hill Country. No limit or season on the Axis and another intruder is the Aoudad Sheep, also know as Barbary Sheep, they can go over 300 pounds and they compete with the whitetails so most ranches like the one in Utopia, where son-in-law and family are on the lease, appreciate deer hunters taking out as many Aoudad as possible.

    Back to the original premise of Neo’s question, I don’t think we would become overrun with Passenger Pigeons since this far along we are getting along fine without them.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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