Lessons from the Passenger Pigeon’s Extinction

Prior to European settlement, Passenger Pigeons, bison and Whooping Cranes were found in the wild near ICF’s headquarters in southern Wisconsin, as remembered in this mural by artist Victor Bakhtin. Nearly 15 years of intensive reintroduction efforts are slowly returning the Whooping Crane to Wisconsin, but the species is threatened by illegal shooting throughout its range. Help us safeguard this species and ensure that their ancient call never again disappears from our landscape.
Passenger PigeonOn September 1st we will observe the 100 year anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon (left). Once known for thunderous flocks that darkened the skies with billions of birds, the Passenger Pigeon disappeared due to overharvesting – the seemingly limitless population had a limit. Just a few decades after the Passenger Pigeon’s demise, another North American bird species, the Whooping Crane, declined to just 21 birds in the wild. Loss of habitat and hunting pressures nearly caused the same fate as the Passenger Pigeon’s.

But unlike the Passenger Pigeon, the Whooping Crane has a second chance. Nearly 75 years of conservation efforts have brought the Whooping Crane back from the brink of extinction, and today the species numbers over 600 birds in the wild and captivity. Low genetic diversity, habitat loss, and power line collisions remain chronic threats to the species’ future. But recently a historic threat, illegal shooting, has re-emerged as one of the Whooping Crane’s greatest challenges. In the past five years, at least 19 Whooping Cranes have been shot in the United States. These disturbing acts of vandalism have happened in all three Whooping Crane populations – from breeding grounds in Wisconsin, to wintering areas in Texas, Louisiana, and all along the cranes’ flyways. For the population re-introduced in the eastern United States, about 20% of all crane deaths have been from shootings – putting the future of this population at risk.

In an effort to mitigate the shooting risks for Whooping Cranes, ICF has launched the Keep Whooping Cranes Safe program, an effort to better understand and reduce the hazards these birds face. With partners across the country, ICF will:

  • Inspire citizens and decision-makers across the nation for successful prosecution and stiffer penalties in Whooping Crane shooting cases.
  • Organize community “Whooper Watch” groups in areas where Whooping Cranes share the landscapes.
  • Collaborate with resource agencies, hunting groups, and outdoor businesses to educate hunters along the Whooping Cranes’ flyways to identify the birds on the ground and in flight, and how to distinguish them from other birds that can be legally hunted.
  • Expand our education initiatives to engage children and communities to protect Whooping Cranes.
DonateHistoric accounts of the Passenger Pigeon’s flights across eastern North America are stunning – thunderous flocks that darkened the skies with billions of birds.

Equally breathtaking is the bugling call of the Whooping Crane, an ancient call that reminds us of what we could still lose.

Help us safeguard the species by supporting ICF today.