General Question

ibstubro's avatar

Today on NPR it was reported that scientists knew that the Passenger Pigeon was going to become extinct when there were still 1,000,000 of the birds alive. How could that happen?

Asked by ibstubro (18636points) May 20th, 2014

It seem that by the time Passenger Pigeons were down to 1 million, mankind had already destroyed so much of the natural habitat that scientists at the time knew it was bound for extinction.

What do you think has changed?

Are we now generally better stewards of the environment in the ‘developed’ world? Less ‘whatever will be, will be’?

Or have technological advances given us the ability to come up with more solutions, i.e. freezing eggs and sperm or erecting some sort of artificial housing?

I found this interesting because I’m pretty sure I was taught in school that the Passenger Pigeon was basically hunted to death, much like buffalo nearly were. For sport.

The passenger pigeon was a colonial and gregarious bird and needed large numbers for optimum breeding conditions.

If you would like to hear the discussion on NPR, I’m unlucky at searching for content there, but I believe it was a discussion of Alan Weisman’s book.

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14 Answers

elbanditoroso's avatar

Interesting question. I was reading this book from the library just a couple of weeks ago. Find it and read it.

The quick answer to “how” has to do with long term trend factors.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

Because it was supposed to.


kritiper's avatar

Easy. Communications to where the birds lived were primitive so maybe no one knew soon enough. Or cared enough. People shot them easily and ate them or just killed them for something to kill. You can’t stop people from doing this. People didn’t care that much because there were always birds somewhere else, right? Let some other guy not kill the birds!
When mankind nears it’s end and people are starving, no “Endangered Species Act,” or any other laws, will stop people from killing animals (ALL TYPES of animals!!!) and eating them.

Coloma's avatar

Old time sailors wiped out massive amounts of seabird colonies to keep barrels of pickled Gulls, and Terns and whatever birds they could harvest from seaside cliffs. I think the PP predictions were based on the large number of birds being killed on a regular, daily basis.
Doesn’t take long to decimate a species of several million if the kill rate is several hundred thousand a year or more.

syz's avatar

Are we better stewards? No.

Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day [1]. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.

We can look at a great number of species today and be fairly certain that they will become extinct within a short time frame. Even the “charismatic” species that we spend enormous resources to try to save (the tiger is the perfect example) will likely not survive outside of captivity because of loss of habitat. Collecting and freezing eggs and sperm does not reverse habitat loss, merely hedges the genetic contraction.

Hell, there are massive numbers of fish in the oceans, yet there’s a frightening chance that we will have dead oceans in our near future

stanleybmanly's avatar

The simple answer is that the extinction occurred in an era where the mass of the public simply didn’t give a f%#k. Economic considerations trumped EVERYTHING else. There are those laboring hard to return us to the glory days. After all, who needs silly useless things like buffalo and whooping cranes.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

It doesn’t help to know these things if leadership isn’t listening. The things @elbanditoroso and @syz have mentioned—and more importantly, last month’s dire disclosures by a variety of broad-based scientific groups concerning the rapidly increasing rate of icecap thaw and the disastrous effects it will soon have on our oceans and atmosphere is a good example. This data got relatively little play outside of professional journals, other than brief, sensational, nonsensical news items.

The information is there, but to do anything about it requires our leaders to launch a world-wide concerted effort to stop this destruction—on a planet inhabited by humans who have never been able to agree on how to take care of their own race, much less the orb they live on.

josie's avatar

Lots of species become extinct. And if we wait long enough, all of the existing ones will too. Seems to be the natural order of things. And human beings are part of nature, just like asteroids and solar flares. In the big picture of nature, it may not be totally relevant which force causes extinction, only that it clearly seems to happen.

majorrich's avatar

Despite what we hear from the media, we humans and elephants, lions and tigers and bears (oh my) have only been here for a mere instant of time in geologic terms. The Earth was here before we were here, and will be here after we are gone. It is the height of arrogance to believe that we can have affected change on a planetary scale to a planet that has been and continues to change and do it’s own thing on a scale of billions of years.

RocketGuy's avatar

@majorrich – you are right, Earth is an unsinkable boat. It’s just that we are tipping the boat with our polluting behavior, and risk falling off.

Coloma's avatar

@majorrich I strongly disagree.
While this planet has been bobbling through space for billions of years, it has never had to cope with the teeming amounts of humanity and pollution and decimation of our water, atmosphere, oceans and other natural resources. Not to mention events like Chernobyl and Uranium poisoning in the middle east that is responsible for some of the most horrffic birth defects ever seen since Hiroshima.
I agree with @RocketGuy and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the massive amount of carnage our species has perpetrated in a short several hundred year period.

Sorry, anyone that turns a blind eye to the wake of destruction humanity is directly responsible for needs to be hit over the head with a large stick.

majorrich's avatar

The main question I still have when I agree to disagree with people with a view like @Coloma as much as I love them is particular to the issue of ‘greenhouse gasses’. I know that CO2 and CFC’s and Ozone are all heavier than atmospheric air gasses. That is to say, if I were to vent any of these gasses in a room, they would sink to about ankle high and form a layer of that gas close to the ground. Especially CFC’s, they are big ol’ molecules! I’ve talked with chemists and Meteorologists and could exact no explanation as to how these gasses get way way up there in the atmosphere? aside from Volcanos, which send plumes of superhot gasses and particulates into the upper atmosphere, I can’t get a handle on the mechanics of how it all works, other than to enrich AlGore and a few people who were able to print coupons for our carbon footprints. None of the explanations I have heard about climate change are phenomena that haven’t happened before and can be documented with ice-cores harvested from both north and south polar ice.
I agree that it is irresponsible to dump harmful stuff into rivers, lakes oceans or just bury it. But I believe the impact of mankinds transgressions against the planet haven’t stopped the ball from spinning.

RocketGuy's avatar

I recently learned that CO2 is such a good absorber of infrared that the amount of CO2 in 1 cubic inch of air is enough to screw up an FTIR instrument reading. FTIR is an instrument that shoots multi-wavelength infrared at a surface and reads what comes back. Certain chemicals absorb certain wavelengths, so it should be easy to distinguish the chemicals on the surface of a sample based on the signature. But turns out you have to make the sample touch the machine because if the IR beam goes through air, much of the IR will be absorbed during the travel. Then the machine won’t see anything. So IR from the Sun will easily heat the CO2 in our atmosphere.

And if you are really worried about money, remember that climate change means we will need more fossil fuels to heat/cool our homes. That means billions more for that industry than they are making now. So you can see why they are so adamant about letting it get worse. Follow the money.

Coloma's avatar

Just because the ball is still spinning doesn’t mean it’s a healthy ball.
Sorta akin to a 420 lb. human that is still alive but unable to get out of bed. They may be hanging on but they are certainly not healthy.
I agree the planet has gone through many natural shifts, no denying that, but, the sheer mass of humanity and chemical pollution cannot be denied as factoring in to many of our current global issues.

Floating islands of trash in out oceans and myriad other evils, all perpetrated by our, oh so, “intelligent” species. Burning a hole through our ozone layer is undeniably the result of man kinds contributions to global pollution. Not something that the planet has ever had to deal with before, in the history of the universe.
Natural vs. unnatural events make all the difference.

Shit…I was next to some guy in his monster diesel truck today and the exhaust coming off that truck still has me feeling like crap, burning eyes, sinus headache, 3 hours later, and we don’t think this is having an effect on our entire environment/atmosphere? Pffft!

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