June 2016

Extinction? Not just for dinosaurs!

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation Naturalist, with assistance from Becky Visser, MCCB Naturalist Technician

We learned in school or read about the dinosaurs and mammals that became extinct thousands of years ago. Even today, species can or may become extinct.

Since settlement began in Iowa in 1833, 90% of the landscape has changed. If you ever read journals from pioneer settlers in Iowa… they talk about a much different landscape and many different animal residents. Many native wildlife species have failed to thrive within the state due to the changing landscape. Some animals here when Iowa achieved statehood are now extinct (i.e. passenger pigeon) while others were extirpated (no longer found here, but are found elsewhere) from these parts by the early 1900s.

In 1916, the United States signed a treaty with Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada, then part of the British Empire). The two countries agreed to stop all hunting of insectivorous birds and to establish specific hunting season for game birds. The goal being to preserve those species that are considered beneficial or harmless to man.

In 2016 the Migratory Bird Treaty celebrates 100 years of migratory bird conservation. The Migratory Bird Treaty is the convention between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) for the Protection of Migratory Birds and was signed on August 16, 1916. The treaty connects the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with our federal, state, private, non-government, tribal, and international partners who share a long, successful history of conservation, protection, and management of migratory bird populations.

Passed nearly a century ago, this Act remains the primary tool for protecting non-endangered species. As threats to birds continue to evolve, so does the law itself.

These three birds have succumbed to modern history extinction before there were any laws protecting them.

Carolina Parakeet

The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was the only parrot species native to the eastern US, with a range from Southern New York to Wisconsin to Florida. This beautiful parakeet was about the size of grackle, with a bright green body plumage and a red and yellow head. Though a popular pet, the bird was driven to extinction by a variety of factors, including habitat loss and being hunted as a pest. These birds had extensive flocking behaviors and a tendency to eat crops, which made them targets as agricultural pests. Their bright feathers were heavily used in the millinery trade (the making of hats and head-wear). The last wild parakeet was killed in Florida in 1904, and the last captive parakeet, "Incas," died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918, expiring in the same cage as the last passenger pigeon, who had died nearly four years prior.

Heath Hen

Although the heath hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) was not exactly an Iowa resident, very closely related subspecies have been. This bird was a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken, and lived along the New England coast. This light bird, weighing only about two pounds, was hunted extensively by early settlers. The hen was eaten so commonly that servants sometimes bargained with their employers to avoid eating the bird more than two or three times a week. By the start of the 20th century, the last surviving population numbered only in the hundreds and lived in Martha’s Vineyard. Extensive action was taken to try and protect the birds, including the establishment of a preserve, a hunting ban, and intentional removal of heath hen predators, but an unfortunate fire and the arrival of predatory goshawks stamped out the last of the population. A particularly mournful late sighting occurred in 1929, when a male, who normally wouldn’t venture far from the ground, was seen at the top of a tree calling loudly and desperately for a mate, but none were there to answer. This male was last seen on March 11, 1932.

Passenger Pigeon

Passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) are probably the most talked about when speaking of extinction in modern history. They were once so abundant during European settlement that a flock could take hours to pass overhead. These birds had an extreme colonial behavior (sticking together in large colonies) and the quick loss of habitat and over-hunting brought them to their demise. After long, hard winters, the birds brought fresh meat to the table, but were also considered pests. The last passenger pigeon was a captive bird named Martha, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

<<< Shooting wild pigeons in Iowa. From Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 21 Sept 1867. Figure 5 from A Country So Full of Game, JJ Dinsmore.

Plaque at Wyalusing State Park in southwestern Wisconsin commemorating the demise of the passenger pigeon. Photo courtesy Mike Meetz. Figure 6 from A Country So Full of Game. JJ Dinsmore. >>>

Through the ages, many Iowa animals have been impacted due to environmental pressures, but with conservation efforts we can overcome this dilemma. With habitat improvement and re-establishment, Iowa has brought back many birds and animals that were once extirpated, including the prairie chicken.

Extinction is forever! No amount of habit re-construction will bring back the beloved creatures, but for many extirpated birds and animals there is hope. Aldo Leopold described conservation:

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations. You can regulate them – cautiously - but not abolish them.

The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering (Leopold, Aldo: Round River, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, pp.145-146).”

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Read more here:

    • A Country So Full of Game: The Story of Wildlife in Iowa, by James J Dinsmore