The plight of the Passenger Pigeon: How Museum collections are helping us to better understand their Story

Sat in Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery, surrounded by other natural history specimens, is a small pink and grey passenger pigeon on a branch.  She is just one of many creatures in the museum’s collection that can now only been seen in books or museum showcases.  Like many museums worldwide, Shropshire Museums ensures that specimens like her survive as both a reminder of our impact upon the environment but also a vital resource for future research.

An image of a preserved pink and grey passenger pigeon sitting on a man made branch on display at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

Passenger Pigeon on display at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery

The passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America and possibly the world. A single flock could contain more than a billion birds. John James Audubon, awed by the spectacle of passenger pigeons in Kentucky in the fall of 1813, writing that “the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.” As mass shooting for sport and food reduced their numbers, museums collected examples to illustrate their plight.  Today, scientists are still trying to answer the question as to how they became extinct so quickly.

A new study of the passenger pigeon’s genome, published recently in the journal Science, outlines new research into this puzzle.  This recent investigation suggests that passenger pigeon populations were stable for thousands of years, even during periods of dramatic climate change.  Studies of small samples taken from museum specimens have found that the pigeon population, although huge, lacked genetic diversity.  The study concluded that much of the bird’s genetic code shows signs of strong natural selection, but very little evidence of ongoing small genetic changes that would help it to adapt if the ecosystem changed.

“Our mass murder of them over the course of decades was just too fast for their evolution to keep up,” said Beth Shapiro, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC-Santa Cruz and one of the paper’s co-authors.

It is therefore no wonder that Shropshire’s Passenger Pigeon is looked down upon rather wistfully by a portrait of Charles Darwin, who first fully published the process of evolution.  Her, like many other specimens cared for by generations of museum curators, is all science have left to understand her species’ story.