One hundred years ago, a 29-year-old bird named Martha sat in an enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. This bird had lived in captivity her entire life and, during the last four years of her life, had become the last of her kind. In a cage on September 1, 1914, the last known living Passenger Pigeon breathed her last and, with that final breath, the last remaining Passenger Pigeon was gone. The last of a species that numbered nearly 5 billion at the time of the European settlement of North America died, and the most numerous bird species on the face of the planet was no more. How could a creature with a population that large simply vanish? Worse yet, how could this extinction happen during a period of about 100 years?
Less than four years later, in the same enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo, another bird representing the end of an entire species died. Incas, the last known Carolina Parakeet, fell lifeless and, with him, the only parrot species native to North America was no more. During this same time frame, many other species were being driven to extinction and animals which were once common were disappearing at an alarming rate. Why were we losing these creatures? What was the driving force behind such tragedy?
During the bulk of the 19th century in the United States, people were pushing westward and industrial progress never seen before was driving the consumption of natural resources. The land of plenty, the land of untold resources, was being stripped to build more, make more and have more. Both of these birds were aggressively hunted, but it was habitat destruction which doomed them to the pages of history books. The guns of hunters may have taken out so many, but it was the axe which relegated these wonderful birds to the words of stories from generations now gone.
As a naturalist, I seek to study nature and marvel at the connections which are found there. Whether it is the relationship between predator and prey or the relationships between plants and insects which count on them, the ties that bind in the natural world still amaze me. The strongest tie is the one binding flora or fauna to habitat. Upsetting its balance even in the smallest way often causes a series of dominos to fall and, ultimately, places great stresses on organisms.
Looking out over the landscape of South Carolina, we can find the habitat of an endangered bird. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker resides within the piney woods of the Sandhills and Coastal Plain. The reasons for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s population decline to the point of being listed as endangered are not very different from the causes of the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet becoming extinct. The mass destruction of the open longleaf pine forests of the American Southeast had a terribly detrimental effect upon the bird, along with other species that call the forests home. When we manage for the protection and conservation of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, it is the habitat, the longleaf pine ecosystem, which we seek to manage and protect first.
Not too many years ago, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker was found in Kershaw County. It was not uncommon to find the woodpecker living and foraging in the Dusty Bend area, as there were several active breeding clusters in the neighborhood of Cool Springs. And the subdivision with the name Peck Woods -- where do you think that moniker came from? I subscribe to the theory that many subdivisions are named for the very thing they took out to be built. This case seems little different. The neighboring counties of Chesterfield and Richland still have good numbers of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, but Kershaw County is without.
How depressing it is to think of the creatures we’ve lost to human ignorance and destructive behavior. How I’d like to tell those who stole those creatures from us what they wrought, taking away any chance we would ever have to enjoy Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets. We will never see the beauty of the birds on the wing and delight in the spectacle of their colors and numbers; but, we have protected things like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and have given future generations opportunities which were robbed from us. It is our duty to conserve and protect natural resources for our children and grandchildren. It is our duty to instill a sense of stewardship in those who will follow behind us and ensure they understand the value of what we have and, more importantly, the value of what has been lost. We must strive to never allow this to happen again. Because extinction is forever.
(Naturalist Josh Arrants specializes in the management of threatened and endangered species and owns his own natural and cultural resources consulting firm. A Kershaw County native and graduate of the University of South Carolina, he now lives in Austin, Texas. Arrants has lectured on and studied natural history from Texas to California; from Florida to Montana and can be followed at ArrantsOutdoors.com.)