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They Passed Like a Cloud: Extinction and the Passenger Pigeon

Once Earth’s most abundant bird – as many as 3-5 billion — it’s been estimated that one of every three North American birds was a Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)!

— Huge flocks darkened the sky for hours.  —  The noise they created sounded like a violent  thunderstorm.  — Their combined weight would often break tree limbs.

— I was startled by hearing a gurgling, rumbling sound, as though an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forest… I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons.  They passed like a cloud through the branches of the high trees, through the underbrush and over the ground.  — Chief Pokagon, last chief of the Michigan Potawatomi people, 1850

Incredibly, today Passenger Pigeons are completely gone, the victims of human hunting and exploitation. The last observed colossal nesting of birds was in Michigan, and it has been 100 years since we have seen the last living Passenger Pigeon. Once known for their extreme abundance, they are best remembered today for extreme lack of foresight in wildlife management.

“They Passed Like a Cloud: Extinction and the Passenger Pigeon” is produced in association with Project Passenger Pigeon (passengerpigeon.org) in 2014, the centenary of this massive extinction. Exhibitions like this mark the anniversary, promote the conservation of species and habitat, strengthen the relationship between people and nature, and foster the sustainable use of natural resources.

Also featured in the exhibition – new and ongoing research and work at MSU:

  • Soundscape recreation of Passenger Pigeon birdsongs, based on the work of exhibit curator Pamela C. Rasmussen, assistant professor of zoology and developer of Project AVoCet, Avian Vocalizations Center
  • CT scans (with MSU College of Veterinary Medicine), as part of MSU Museum-Department of Zoology feeding ecology research
  • 3D models of Passenger Pigeons
  • Feather identification with the Smithsonian Institution, to determine species and verify content of feather-filled bed coverings in the museum’s historical collections
  • “The Last Haul,” Passenger Pigeon ceramic sculpture installation by Mary Fritz (MFA candidate, MSU Department of Art, Art History, and Design)
  • More: Passenger Pigeon specimens from MSU Museum Vertebrate Natural Science Collections, examples of other extinct species and some conservation success stories.

Heritage Gallery

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