And then there were none.

150 years ago the Passenger Pigeon was the most abundant bird on the planet, estimates vary between two and three billion.  Either way, it is a pretty incomprehensible number.  Two thousand million pigeons in one flock in the United States.  By 1900 there were none left in the wild, Martha, bred in captivity, died in captivity on 1st September 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo, the last passenger pigeon on earth.

How did this come about?  That was the quest that Mark Avery, former Conservation Director of the RSPB, and author of Message from Martha, set himself.  And, the story of Martha and her fellow pigeons was one that Mark described for the Humfrey lecture at Northants Natural History Society (NNHS).

Passenger pigeons were, apparently unremarkable birds, somewhere in size between a collared dove and a wood pigeon and, looking very pigeon like; the male having a fairly rosy pink breast, the female not even being that colourful.  They lived in the eastern United States and mainly inhabited deciduous forests where they fed on acorns, chestnuts and beech mast, with some berries and occasional pine nuts thrown in for variety.

The only remarkable thing about these pigeons was the size of their flock.  There are various contemporary accounts from such luminaries as John James Audubon (of Audubon’s Birds of America book fame), John Muir (a Scot who instigated the National Parks of America) and Alexander Wilson (another Scot after whom a plethora of birds have been named, Wilson’s petrel for one).  They all describe a flock that stretched from horizon to horizon, how they watched them for hours and still the flock streamed over, bird after bird flying past at around 40mph.  It is from their descriptions that the two to three billion estimates came from and they probably knew how to count birds (although the description from one witness of their dung being like snow seems a bit far-fetched, unless snow was very different in 19th century America).

These birds moved wherever the food was, and, with numbers on that scale, they needed a lot of food.  Even when they nested they did so in numbers in the hundreds of millions.

So, what did for the passenger pigeon.  Were they hunted and eaten to death by Americans.  That would be the first guess as shooters did arrive on trains whenever they heard where the passenger pigeons had landed.  Tens of thousands of them were sent back to the east to be eaten, some still alive to make them fresher when they got there.  But, as Mark said, is it really likely that we ate two billion birds to death?  Perhaps it was disease, or loss of habitat, after all, by 1870 half of America’s woodland had been cleared.  Or perhaps something else ate them.  Mark is of the latter opinion, that their numbers had reduced enough through hunting and habitat loss that natural (not man-made) predation was enough to finish them off entirely.  And, he’s probably right, although we’ll never know.

Why is this important?  It seems that we don’t learn from history.  Whilst there are no birds that are as numerous as the passenger pigeon was, in the last thirty years the same number of birds have been lost from the EU, it’s just that they are spread across hundreds of species.  This loss is due to the same reasons, habitat loss and hunting, but do we care enough to do anything about it and stop the full extinction?  Unfortunately, the prevailing opinion in the room was probably not.  Let’s hope Mark’s talk can inspire some more people to take action and prevent the sixth great extinction.

In the news this week.

I subscribe to a lot of news feeds relating to wildlife and the environment, so here are links to some of the most interesting wildlife articles from this week.

The EU is apparently very miserly when it comes to protecting wildlife, spending a mere 0.1% of its budget on nature protection, leaving the threat of extinction hanging over a large number of species and habitats.  Read more here

Dormice in the UK are under threat, and in a bid to increase populations a number are being released in a secret location in Warwickshire.  A few interesting facts about dormice and a very cute picture are included in the article.

Another and, arguably, less cute reintroduction story that has been widely reported on is the release of smooth snakes on the moors in Devon where they used to live until about 50 years ago.  These non-venomous snakes are, at the moment, limited by suitable habitat to lowland heaths in Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Surrey.

You may also have heard the sad news that a Golden Eagle that had been fitted with a tracking device enabling its journeys to be followed over the internet by swathes of bird lovers has been found poisoned.  The poisoning of birds of prey is still a problem, although this eagle may have been killed by poison left by a gamekeeper for other birds of prey such as hen harriers, white tailed eagles or buzzards.


At this time of year you may notice lots of damselflies zipping about. As far as I can tell these emerge from the pond earlier than dragonflies, and, who can blame them as they make a tasty meal for their voracious cousins.

The damselfly lays it eggs in or close to water and these hatch after about a month. The nymphs then remain in the pond for one to two years before crawling up a convenient piece of vegetation and emerging from their larval case (exuvia). I think we have had at least 10 emerge from our pond in the last month. Here’s a picture I caught of a damselfy as it was emerging.

Damselfly emerging from larval case.The damselfly then has to sit there as it pumps fluid to its wings and dries out before it can fly off. The time taken for this depends on the weather and one I was watching took about 3 hours in early May, but about half that time a couple of weeks later.

Damselflies are much smaller than dragonflies, and sit with their wings held in to their long slim body (thorax) unlike dragonflies which are much larger and wider and who hold their wider wings out.

Large Red Damselfly
Large Red Damselfly

This is a large red damselfy (which I think is the species that emerged from the pond in early May). Unfortunately they only tend to live for a few weeks so enjoy them whilst you can. Can you think of a better reason to put a pond in your garden than to see these fantastic creatures close-up?

For a great introduction to dragonflies and damselflies see the Leicestershire and Rutland Dragonfly Group website.

Polecats are on the march (although I haven’t seen one).

Polecats are the latest mammal to be making a comeback in the UK.  First of all it was otters, now it seems that polecats are increasing in number in the UK.  Is this good news? I think so.

Until I read a recent article in the British Wildlife Magazine I didn’t know anything about polecats (or even realise they existed in the wild), so here are a few things I have learned:

They are native and were reduced to small groups surviving only in Wales, in no small part due to persecution by farmers and gamekeepers.

They are now spreading north and east, although their range appears to be limited by the major conurbations of the north-west and the midlands.

Polecats are relatives of ferrets, and there has been reduction in the purity of the polecate genes by some interbreeding with ferrets.

Polecats are about half a metre long (similar in size to ferrets), they have dark fur, lighter fur on their faces and dark noses (ferrets tend to have pink noses).

Unfortunately the polecats are often killed on the roads.

They manage better in the wild than ferrets as they are good hunters (ferrets were bred to be rubbish at catching their prey) and are thriving on the increased population of rabbits in the wild (currently standing around 45 million).

The good news is that it is thought that they (or possibly the otters) are having an adverse effect on mink which are starting to hunt during the day.  So, in the world of doom and gloom with everything seeming to be labelled a ‘crisis’ it appears there is some good news out there (unless you are a rabbit, frog, ground nesting bird…Oops, I think I am going off them a bit!).

For more information about polecats see the report from the Vincent Wildife Trust or subscribe to the excellent British Wildlife Magazine.

Beavers to Come Back to Scotland

There was an article on the BBC news website today announcing that 400 years after we wiped them out in the UK beavers are going to be reintroduced into Scotland.  Three or four families of beavers will be captured in Norway in the autumn, kept in quarantine for 6 months and then released to a number of sites in Scotland.  

The reintroduction of species has been the subject of controversy, this seems to be more the case with mammals than in the bird world which has seen reintroduction programmes for red kites and ospreys in the last decade.  This will be the first reintroduction of a mammal in the UK, and has followed a lengthy period of preparation and research.

Although some people seem concerned about the effect reintroducing these creatures will have on the environment, they are being settled in areas that they used to inhabit (unlike the ospreys at Rutland Water), and will bring benefits to the environment.  It seems to me that the planning for this was probably more in depth than that for new houses on flood plains and many of the other project we carry out which are detrimental to the natural processes which keep the environment balanced.

The full article can be found on the BBC website.