Indiana State University Newsroom

Earth Day speaker to explore extinct bird's legacy

April 18, 2014

A fact many Hoosiers will not be proud of: The last wild passenger pigeon was shot dead in Laurel, Ind., in the spring of 1902. The bird, which was North America's most abundant bird just a few decades earlier, would become extinct on Sept. 1, 1914, when the last of its kind died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Joel Greenberg, a renowned ornithologist, will present a talk about the species' collapse, "Echoes of Their Wings: The Passenger Pigeon and Its Legacy," during the seventh annual Earth Day Address, 7 p.m. Tuesday at University Hall Theater.

"The great lesson of the passenger pigeon is as a cautionary tale," Greenberg said. "Just because something is abundant - be it water, fuel or an organism - we can lose it if we are not good stewards. And if something that abundant can disappear in decades, something rare can go in the snap of a finger."

Greenberg, who became interested in birds at the age of 12, received a bachelor's degree in political science from Humboldt State and a master's and juris doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis.

His book, "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction," is the first major research on the bird in 50 years. Greenberg is also a contributor of the Passenger Pigeon Project, which aims to teach the public about current issues related to environmental systems' interconnectedness through the bird's tale of extinction.

Nearly a hundred years later, the passenger pigeon is still critically significant, Greenberg said.

"Three things: First, with a population that likely reached or exceeded 5 billion, it was the most abundant bird in North America and probably the world," he said. "Second, it aggregated in flocks that comprised hundreds of millions, if not billions, of birds. And, third, although a single flight in 1860 near Toronto probably numbered more than a billion individuals, the last wild birds were wiped out by the first few years of the 20th century."

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hunters relentlessly tracked and killed the birds, sending their meat by railroad to growing cities.

"They were the cheapest terrestrial protein and thus were highly coveted for food," Greenberg said. "They were thought to be of such abundance that very few imagined they could disappear. There were laws in some states that limited the distance from nesting areas where you could shoot or net birds, but these were poorly enforced."

As an environmentalist and scientist, Earth Day holds special meaning for Greenberg.

"While one would hope that people keep the principals of Earth Day in mind all year long, the day does bring attention in a unique way to the importance of maintaining the web of life. And for the richness and beauty of the planet to be preserved, we, as a species of over seven billion individuals, need to proceed in a more sustainable way," he said. "So for at least this one day, those of us who work to promote environmental protection in one or more of its varied aspects get to see our issues highlighted in a very high profile way."

The Earth Day Address is part of the College of Arts and Sciences' Community Semester, is hosted by Rusty Gonser and co-sponsored by the Darwin Keynote Speaker Series, Center for Community Engagement, University Honors Program, College of Graduate and Professional Studies, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and the Lilly Endowment.


Photo: Renowned ornithologist Joel Greenberg poses for a picture with a taxidermied passenger pigeon named Heinrich, in honor of the 19th century composer who wrote a major symphony devoted to the bird.

Contact: Rusty Gonser, associate professor of biology and director of The Center for Genomic Advocacy at Indiana State University, 812-237-2395 or

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or