This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the only species of pigeon native to North America, and at one time this continent's most abundant bird. Only decades before lonely Martha -- the last known passenger pigeon -- died after having spent her final years as a living museum curiosity at the Cincinnati Zoo, passenger pigeon flocks numbered in the billions. When they flew overhead, their swarms spanned for miles and blotted out the sun; when they roosted in forest canopies, mighty tree limbs snapped under the sheer weight of their vast numbers. Many people refused to believe passenger pigeons could have been wiped out by humankind so quickly -- rumors circulated that they had all decamped to Mexico or even disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. During a ceremony in Wisconsin to commemorate the passing of this species in 1947, a heartbroken Aldo Leopold (perhaps the greatest American ecologist) remarked, "We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin."
Leopold may have been wrong. If the latest breakthroughs in genetic science are any indication, we may only be a few decades away from the resurrection of the passenger pigeon and other long-extinct species. In fact, the requisite technology for constructing a real-life Jurassic Park already exists: decoding species' DNA structure (think of the Human Genome Project) and cloning (recall Dolly the sheep). "De-extinction" advocates like Stewart Brand have high hopes that the return of the passenger pigeon could offer a much-needed dose of optimism to counteract the predominant doom and gloom environmentalist narrative (which, they argue, produces a collective malaise and sense of fatalism rather than spurring people to action). Given that humans are responsible for the disappearance of at least 10,000 species every year, de-extinction can be thought of as a kind of restitution that humankind owes to Mother Nature.
Charles Darwin claimed in The Origin of Species that it is "human nature to fancy any novelty," and that it is for this reason that people created hundreds of varieties of domesticated pigeons through centuries of selective breeding. Perhaps this also explains why so many of us find the prospect of resuscitating passenger pigeons so enticing even as we devalue the pigeon that has adapted so well to living amongst us. I speak, of course, of the "rock pigeon," or Columba livia --that grey bird with black-barred wings and iridescent neck feathers which can be found in almost every city on the planet. I like to call these pigeons, and other animals like them that are so well adapted to a brave new world in which ecosystems sprout from concrete, pedestrians. After all, they have insinuated themselves into what urbanist Jane Jacobs called the "intricate sidewalk ballet" of city life: walking the streets, sitting on benches and begging for handouts.
While we desperately scrape tissue samples from dead passenger pigeons in the hopes of returning these birds to our skies, we engage in a (seemingly futile) quest to expunge the rock pigeons from our midst by any means necessary: plastic owls, sticky gel, nets, electric shock wires, poison and even bullets. Rather than admiring the humble rock pigeon for faring so well in harsh conditions, we scorn it as a "rat with wings." This is history repeating itself, for just as rock pigeons are seen by many today as the scourge of cities, so were passenger pigeons seen a century ago as the scourge of the country. They laid waste to farmers' crops and to the forests where they nested, and so were persecuted with a blood-thirsty zeal by men who shot them out of the sky in bunches and ripped their heads off as they sat on eggs. It was only once we had eradicated the passenger pigeon that we developed a fondness for it.
While de-extinction may in some ways be a noble effort, it appears to be driven at least in part by a naïve nostalgia. We live in an era that a growing number of scientists refer to as the Anthropocene, meaning that humans have become a driving geologic force of nature. Like ostriches sticking their heads in the dirt, our cultural reflex has been to pine for a return to the halcyon days when our species did not have dominion over every living creature. This may explain why we fervently attempt to repatriate fragile species that were lost to urban development while simultaneously ignoring or seeking to evict the pedestrian species that thrive in human-altered landscapes. The passenger pigeon offers the tantalizing prospect of bringing back an element of the "wild"-- one of contemporary society's rarest of all commodities; whereas rock pigeons force us to own up to our role in bringing about what environmentalist Bill McKibben calls the "end of nature." In eating from our hands, scavenging our garbage, and pacing our sidewalks, rock pigeons subvert our romantic conceptions of what is "wild" or "natural." But it is worth asking: even if we manage to realize our science fiction fantasy, what would stop passenger pigeon 2.0 from following in the rock pigeon's footsteps?
As the environmental historian William Cronon writes, the fetishization of pristine nature may hinder conservation efforts because it can foster apathy for the polluted, human-altered landscapes that most of us actually inhabit. Similarly, notions of the "wild" as untouched by man can impede appreciation for the "contaminated" animals that live amongst us. Given the pace and scope of anthropogenic environmental disruptions, ecologists predict a future in which more and more species will mimic pedestrian animals like pigeons and fashion their survival strategies around humans. These are the monsters we have created, and we must learn to love our Frankensteins if we are to have any real chance of holding onto enough biodiversity to save this planet. Perhaps such a rapprochement could even begin with that most pedestrian creature of all, the rock pigeon.