As we note the death a hundred years ago this week of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, I’ve been thinking about how the mindset of the time contributed to the extinction of a species that was once the most abundant in North America. Despite growing evidence to the contrary, people of the Victorian era deluded themselves with the twin fallacies that not only was mass killing of wild animals sporting and morally acceptable, but also that the supply of big and small game, was inexhaustible. The only good thing to come of this wanton waste of life was the nascent conservation movement. The majority of Martha’s species were hunted to oblivion. She was spared that fate by being held captive in her cage in the Cincinnati Zoo. She was 29 when she fell off the proverbial perch and had never produced a fertile egg during her long internment. In life she was a curiosity, a false prize of human folly. In death, she became the poster bird of extinction.
Ironically, by today’s standards, more than a few renowned naturalists would qualify as mass-murdering sadists, even after they supposedly got religion. They were what we might call RINOS (Reformed In Name Only): Their main concern was making sure there were still enough animals left to hunt. Were it not for his exemplary conservation track record on the whole, Theodore Roosevelt might fall into that category. His expedition to Africa in 1909 killed 512 mammals (lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, buffalo, black rhinos, white rhinos, antelopes) and 43 birds. The expedition consumed about half of the animals; many skins and salted animals were sent back to the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History. The difference between specimens and trophies can be a fine line. We should all feel a shudder of ambivalence when we gaze at these museum displays today, but keep in mind that this body count was nothing compared to that of other big-game hunters. While Roosevelt’s group killed 11 elephants, it was common for white hunters to slaughter 1,000 each during a genocidal safari. As we know, poachers are now committing similar atrocities, pushing African elephants and rhinos, among others, to extinction with sickening speed. Clearly, something more than laws and public shaming are needed to stop the insanity.
But what are we to make of the “naturalists” back in the day for whom revenge killings were all in a day’s work? One such character who stocked museum collections with taxidermy was Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen (seen at right, with a Kori Bustard, one of many birds he bagged in Nairobi, Kenya, 1915.) Something of a self-aggrandizing fabulist and fraud, he relished the opportunity to take down wildlife for the professed purpose of collecting specimens. And sometimes it got personal. We have little reason to doubt his account of decimating a troop of baboons in Kenya in the early 1900s after they killed a beloved hunting dog. Ostensibly this was to “teach them a lesson.” Of course, teachable moments are wasted on the dead. Nonetheless, Meinertzhagen noted in his diary that he was “pleased” by the body count of 25, which included all the adult males.
Around the same time, in 1908, revenge was also the motivation for amateur naturalist Howard George Lacey to go to war against some screech owls on his Texas Hill Country ranch. We know this because he took the time to type up the incident for the federal government’s North American Bird Phenology program. He was part of a network of volunteers who dutifully recorded first arrival dates, maximum abundance, and departure dates of migratory birds across North America. They filled out their observations on little cards and mailed them in to the feds. The program was disbanded in the 1970s but the U.S. Geological Survey has archived the millions of cards online. Citizen scientists can help transcribe and enter these hand-scribbled records into a database through the North American Bird Phenology Program. While the empirical data is invaluable for ornithologists, the cards also offer a fascinating window into the lives of the birders themselves. The NABPP even has a “Notable Cards” section on its website, where I stumbled upon this three-act gem from Lacey.
Apparently, he’d been stewing for almost a year after “all the little martins” in his martin box had been wiped out by a predator. When Lacey’s companion spots a screech owl ducking into the box, Lacey the bird-lover decides to investigate – gun in hand. Lacey shoots first, looks later. After killing one adult owl, he discovers three owl chicks occupying the box and removes them to the base of a pecan tree. The surviving parent tries to protect and nurture the chicks. The owl feeds the young sphinx moths, which intrigues Lacey, an amateur lepidopterist. But when Lacey’s pal gets too close, the adult bird goes on the defensive.
By day three, Lacey has had enough with “my friend the owl.”He doesn’t say whether he uses the gun to get “even with him,” but one can imagine a wry smile on Lacey’s face as he pens this creepy, cryptic ending to his dispatch:
You have to wonder about a nature-lover who just doesn’t get it. I should note that while Howard George Lacey’s copious field notes did contribute to the inventory of Texas flora and fauna, he should not to be confused with another wildlife champion named Lacey from the same period — John F. Lacey, a congressman widely regarded as the “Father of American Conservation.” Despite early ridicule by his fellow U.S. congressmen, Rep. Lacey (R-Iowa) doggedly pushed for early conservation legislation. The Lacey Bird Act of 1900 outlawed interstate transport of game taken illegally, and his 1894 Yellowstone National Park Protection Act turned the park into the first national wildlife preserve where all hunting and trapping were forbidden.
Roosevelt, of course, did more than any politician then or since to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the U.S. Forest Service and establishing four National Game Preserves, five National Parks, 18 National Monuments, 51 Federal Bird Reservations, and 150 National Forests — protecting in all 230 million acres of public land. One thing you can say for Teddy, when he channeled that uncontrollable ego in the right direction, he made the world a better place.
These laws and protections came too late for Martha; the Passenger Pigeon had already passed the tipping point toward annihilation. But her death helped galvanize the conservation movement. Frenemy naturalists could no longer have it both ways. When it comes to protecting wildlife and our feathered friends, the first rule should be, Do No Harm.