Monday, January 26, 2009


Museum vouchers of Passenger Pigeon (top) and Carolina Parakeet (bottom)

Part 1 of an ongoing menagerie of animals that are gone forever. When we say EXTINCT, that does in fact mean that the entire species (or specific taxonomic group) has died out. One would not say that an individual or local population has become extinct. All that we now have of these creatures are old pictures, artistic renderings, collections specimens, and grainy footage. Lest we forget, let's have another look. (Yes i know extincted isn't a word, shut up!)

LAYSAN RAIL (Porzana palmeri)

The Layasan Rail went extinct on its home island of Laysan in 1923 (in the Hawaiian Islands) after introduced rabbits had obliterated all of the island's vegetation. The lack of nesting material and cover did them in. They went for really reals extinct, in 1944, after a U.S. naval vessel crashed into Midway Island (where they had been introduced) releasing rats onto the island. The rats' predation on the eggs and young finally did them in.

A print of the Rail with it's fuzz black young. Both parents cared for the eggs and young.

The Laysan Rail was flightless and only 6 in. from beak tip to tail tip.

The nests were made in grass tussocks surrounding the island's lagoon.

Foraging for food, and contemplating mortality.

Last, maybe only, film taken of the Laysan Rail

CAROLINA PARAKEET (Conuropsis carolinensis)

Hey! No seriously, HEY, did you know that the Eastern U.S. had its own parrot at one time? That's right, up until 1918, there was a native parrot roaming around much of the East. Eventually though, a complex web of circumstances (the trade in bird feathers for women's hats, destruction of Hardwood Forests, possibly the introduction of the European Honeybee, and destruction of nests by farmers) lead to their eradication.

One of the few specimens left, in a Museum in Weisbaden, Germany. Can you believe we lost (destroyed) something this beautiful?

Audubon's (kind of) famous illustration of the Carolina. They lived in old growth forests along rivers from the east coast into the midwest.

Mark Catesby's classic illustration. The parakeet fed on a wide variety of seeds, fruits, and grains (including human crops, MEOWCH!).

What? Oh yeah, I didn't think you said anything, sorry.

The last of the wild Carolinas were killed off in 1904 in Florida, while the last captive (and the last we know of at all) died at the Cincinatti Zoo in 1918.

ELEPHANT BIRDS (family Aepyornithidae)

The Elephant Birds were enormous flightless birds in the Genus
Aepyornis. They lived on Madagascar until, at least, the 1500's, when human settlers arrived. It's believed that the combination of over-collection of eggs for food and the introduction of dogs and rats lead to the bird's extinction. And so, the world's largest bird disappeared into imagination.

All drawings and renderings that we have are based on skeletons and folk tales, as no Westerner has ever seen one whole or alive.

A scale drawing of bird and human

Models are the only way to get a real perspective of their size now.

Museum specimen of Elephant Bird skeleton and egg

The color and distribution of the feathers... we have to guess at these characteristics.

There were possibly 4 species of Aepyornis, or it's possible that we have just found 4 different geographical and/or age variants of one species, the universally accepted Aepyornis maximus.

A model Elephant Bird egg (left), Ostrich egg (lower right and largest bird today), and Hummingbird egg (upper right)

"Could I ride one?"
"Sir, please step away form the enclosure... SIR!!!"

GREAT AUK (Pinguinis impennis)

This large relative of the Puffin swam the waters of the North Atlantic, until the last one was seen in New Foundland in 1852. It had previously been accepted that the last pair had been killed by hunters/sociopaths (seriously, read the account if you can find it), incubating their egg in 1844 on an island off the coast of Iceland. They had been hunted for centuries, but the intensity of hunting (for down, meat , and eggs) in the 1800's was too much for the Great Auk.

The Great Auk was actually the first bird referred to as a "Penguin".

Also called the Garefowl, form Old Norse for "Spear Bird" (referring to the beak).

As with many of the birds in this family (the Alcids - Puffins, Murres, Auks, etc.) they ate fish.

This Leipzig Museum specimen hasn't eaten in awhile.

This London Museum specimen is seriously not impressed with that sweater.

They stood up to 3 feet tall, and weighed up to ~11 lbs. Truly THE GREATEST AUK OF THEM ALL!!! Ahem, yeah.

Although quite quick and agile in the water, they were ungainly on land. This coupled with their lack of fear of humans/predators (they didn't have many on their breeding islands) made them easy targets for hunters (who just killed too many).

Another potential problem that lead to extinction was the low birth rate of the Great Auk, as they only laid one large egg per year. If the nest is destroyed, well... that's it! And so it was.

PASSENGER PIGEON (Ectopistes migratorius)

What was once, perhaps, the most numerous vertebrate land animal in the world, existing in the billions... is now extinct. AND IT'S YOUR FAULT!!! Okay maybe not, but it was humans that hunted them for meat and oil (from fat) to the point where they could no longer maintain their numbers.

Pretty pigeons don't get exceptions.

Their nesting colonies were miles long, and they existed in those colonies in the millions. When hunters had decimated their numbers below a size in which the Pigeons were comfortable nesting, they simply stopped reproducing in adequate numbers in the wild (as they some how needed GREAT numbers to fell protected from predators perhaps).

They were so numerous, that when they passed over in flocks, they could blacken the sky for hours. During migration, flocks a mile wide and almost 300 miles long could be seen.

Imagine the feces!

John James Audubon's print of the Passenger Pigeon.

They were of course considered a major pest by some farmers. Think of millions of birds descending on your wheat fields.

A print of the female (left), male (center), and juvenile male (right).

A specimen in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The last know live Passenger Pigeon, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The Passenger Pigeon nested in huge groups in forests through the Eastern U.S.

One of the last babies

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