August 29, 2014

From Billions to None: Remembering the Passenger Pigeon

Passenger pigeons. 
Photo credit: The Birds of America,
J.B. Chevaller, 1840-1844, n39_21150,
CC-BY-NC-2.0, via Flickr.
They flew in vast flocks, numbering in the billions—the sound from their flapping wings was deafening. John James Audubon once described a flock as one mile wide and 240 miles long that darkened the dome of the sky for three days as it passed overhead.

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America. At the time European settlers arrived, passenger pigeons accounted for nearly forty percent of the land birds of North America, primarily east of the Rocky Mountains. In 1857, the Ohio State Legislature dismissed the idea of protection for the passenger pigeon, proclaiming, “it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them.”

But on September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon on Earth perished. In less than a century, the great species had gone extinct.

There are numerous factors that could have contributed to the demise of the passenger pigeon. In the 19th Century, as America’s population grew, the demand for food increased and passenger pigeons were an obvious and plentiful source.

Thousands of men became full-time pigeon hunters. With nesting sites that held unimaginable numbers of birds, hunters slaughtered the birds with ease and efficiency.

One effective technique for wholesale pigeon hunting was to tie one end of a string to the foot of a captured pigeon and the other to the leg of a stool. As the bird tried to fly away, its fluttering wings suggested that it had found food. The rest of the flock, approaching in enormous numbers, was easy to kill. “Stool pigeon” later came to mean anyone who betrays another.

In the mid-19th century, tens of millions of birds were shot for sport. Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, waged a campaign against the brutal treatment of the passenger pigeon. Not only did Bergh write the first legislation attempt to protect the passenger pigeon, but he also helped invent the clay pigeon, which eventually replaced the living bird as a target. Despite efforts by forward-thinking conservationists like Bergh, many protective efforts were overlooked.

In addition to being hunted for food and sport, habitat loss was an important factor in the extinction of the passenger pigeon. As the immigrant population spread rapidly across the country, the bird’s habitat, low-lying areas of nut and beech trees, was converted into farmland.

The end of a species
By the end of the 19th century, only a few thousand passenger pigeons remained in the wild, and the last few were kept in zoos and private collections. On March 24, 1900, a boy in Pike County, Ohio shot the last recorded wild passenger pigeon.

The last survivors of the species, George and Martha, named after the father and first lady of our country, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. George died first, and four years later, on September 1, 1914, Martha died in her cage. Martha’s body, encased in a block of ice, was shipped by train to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History where her specimen remains today.

Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in the Burke Museum collection.

One of few remaining
The Burke cares for one of the 1,532 passenger pigeon specimens left on earth in our birds collection. Sadly, we know very little about its particular history.

It had to have been collected somewhere east of the Rockies—the species didn’t live this far west—probably in the late 1800s. This bird, however, wasn’t killed for food, but for display. The glass eyes and pink-painted legs tell us it was originally prepared in a lifelike pose, probably perched on a branch. Whether it was a cherished possession, or part of a museum exhibit, or simply stored in a closet, we cannot know.

It was long assumed that the passenger pigeon (center) was most closely related to mourning doves (right) due to similar tail feathers, but with molecular testing it was discovered they are most closely related to the band-tailed pigeons (left) that live in the pine forests of the Western United States.

Eventually this specimen turned up at the Slater Museum in Tacoma where a museum worker carefully modified its lifelike form into a compact “study skin,” which is the typical way museums prepare birds for long-term storage and research.

Then, some 100 years after its unremarkable death, this now remarkably rare bird arrived here at the Burke, where it will remain.

Fold the Flock
You can participate in a world-wide initiative called “Fold the Flock” to symbolically recreate the astounding size of former passenger pigeon flocks by facilitating the creation of one million paper origami birds.

Fold the Flock

Those who want to participate from home can download a free template and record their contribution on the Fold the Flock website. Participants are encouraged to share photos of their creations on social media using #burkeflock #foldtheflock.

August 11, 2014

Explore the past and present near San Juan Island's American Camp

For the past 20 years, Julie Stein, executive director of the Burke Museum and a professor of Archaeology at the University of Washington, has led walking tours on the southern edge of San Juan Island in Washington’s Strait of Juan de Fuca within the Salish Sea. The people who come on these tours are curious about one thing: stories of people and place. And on Julie’s tour, those stories extend back thousands of years.

This year marked what may be Julie’s last tour, but if you didn’t get to go on one, you can still draw on your powers of observation and curiosity—as well as this DIY (do-it-yourself) tour guide—to enjoy a rich investigation into the past and present of San Juan Island.

Julie Stein, executive director of the Burke Museum, has offered archaeology-based walking tours on San Juan Island for the past 20 years, but the premise of her tours can be readily adapted by anyone—it all starts with questions. Photo credit: John Howell, Cedar River Group

July 15, 2014

Scientific illustration: What's the point? Reflections on the craft's ongoing value

By Nora Sherwood

More than 400 years ago, European explorers were traveling to distant corners of the globe and discovering unfamiliar landscapes, people, animals and plants. In a time when travel was prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy and too difficult for all but the most adventurous or desperate, scientific illustrators created images of these far-off places to show the people at home what those explorers found. A mostly European audience with an appetite for learning about all things exotic eagerly beheld images of South American flowers and bugs, African large mammals and birds of the Far East. Scientific illustration brought the distant world nearer, providing visuals to further trigger the imagination.

“Sable (Martes zibellina)” from The Cruise of the Marchesa with maps and woodcuts drawn by J. Keulemans, C. Whymper and others, Second edition, 1889, The British Library

June 11, 2014

It's a new holiday! Burke Education makes one kid's dream come true

When 6-year old John, of Friday Harbor, Washington, was asked make up his own holiday, he let his imagination run wild—prehistoric wild.

Image excerpt courtesy of Scholastic Book Clubs, Inc.

May 31, 2014

7 good reads recommended by Burke staff

Tell us what you're reading this summer 
in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter
Photo: Simon CocksCreative Commons
Whether you're heading out on the road or hanging out in the sun, summer is a great time to explore new worlds through reading.

The following seven books are recommended by Burke staff for your summertime enjoyment—whether you like the prehistoric or present, natural history or culture—or all of it!

Be sure to check out the end of this post for museum-related offers for summertime readers.

May 18, 2014

Making connections through Burke collections

In honor of this year's International Museum Day, I sat down with one of our curators, Dr. Holly Barker, also a University of Washington (UW) anthropology professor, to talk about some of the connections she’s seen UW students make when she’s invited them into the Burke’s ethnology collections.

Tangible connections. Students in one of Holly’s independent
study groups making pump drills, an ancient tool that’s
being revitalized in today’s carving practices.

April 10, 2014

Object in focus: A mug made from a walrus

The journey from walrus to mug is actually shorter than you might think, as a few objects in the Burke's collection show.

First, the mug.

Photo credit: Richard Brown Photography
Object ID: Cat. No 1-2177
Gift of Lucille Christ

This mug was found in the mid-1950s when some children were digging in a backyard in Seattle's Laurelhurst neighborhood, but the mug probably originated in Alaska over 100 years ago.

Around the turn of the 20th century, mugs like this were made by Alaskan Native carvers to sell to tourists. This mug was most likely sold or traded to someone in Alaska who then brought it down the coast to Seattle. From there, the mug either got lost or thrown away and became buried.

After the mug was found, it was eventually donated to the Burke's archaeology collection, where it lives today.

But what about the walrus connection?