Survival, extinction at Notebaert Nature Museum

Extinction of a bird that once filled the skies is a compelling part of nature museum exhibit

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Joel Greenberg talks about the astonishing extinction of the passenger pigeon, which went from a population of billions to zero in less than 50 years. He wrote the book "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction."

The new exhibition at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is like a roll call of lost, or nearly lost, species: the passenger pigeon, the American bison, the black bear in Illinois, the Carolina parakeet.

But "Nature's Struggle: Survival and Extinction," while telling such tragic stories, also connects them to the present-day. The entire last section focuses on steps visitors can take in their own lives to break the patterns of abuse of Earth's resources.

It's the cornerstone of the Notebaert's Year of the Passenger Pigeon that will see the museum in the Lincoln Park neighborhood host a symposium on extinction and stage other related events.

The Notebaert, the public face of the Chicago Academy of Sciences (and a finalist this year for a National Medal for Museum and Library Service), is also host to the new Project Passenger Pigeon, a multidisciplinary effort devoted to the birds that, in 50 years, went from North America's most abundant to extinct.

It comes, not coincidentally, 100 years after the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, in the Cincinnati Zoo, on Sept. 1, 1914. A photo of the final, modest home for a species that, not that many years prior, numbered in the billions is one of the more poignant in an exhibit that practically aches with regret.

"There was a last bird. It had a name. Its not just like, 'Oh, this thing died out,'" says Joel Greenberg, a research associate at the Notebaert and Field Museum and author of "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction."

Greenberg was well into research for the book when he approached Steve Sullivan, the museum's senior curator of urban ecology, about doing something more.

"The anniversary really made it current," Greenberg says, affording the chance to do "something meant for a general audience to share this absolutely amazing, powerful story."

"It's a story that we as a species have not really learned from yet," says Sullivan.

The exhibition, made in-house at the Notebaert, strikes a superb balance between speaking to children and adults. It tells its stories via three children, an Illinois boy in 1820, one in 1905 and a present-day girl.

Mixed in is the tale of the Chicago Academy of Sciences itself, an early advocate of conservation, born in 1857.

The show is filled with spots for visitors to write their own reactions or try their own versions of bird sketches. Drawings by John James Audubon are there, of course, but the exhibit also pays tribute to local botanist Herman Pepoon.

It also leans heavily on the Academy's collection of taxidermied animals, which range from midsize woodland creatures to a black bear to a massive, rearing polar bear, the species that has come to be the poster animal for current global warming concerns.

But long before the plight of the polar bear, there was the passenger pigeon. The bird, slightly longer and leaner than common city pigeons, is well represented. Specimens are in the show in three places, including the males with their distinctive salmon-colored breast.

It is hard, however, to imagine how truly numerous they once were.

The hundreds of places named after pigeons in the United States are so called not because of the city bird we know today but because of the passenger pigeon.

"The largest recorded nesting was in Wisconsin in 1871," says a Wisconsin Historical Society document. "A conservative estimate of the nesting area is 850 square miles, and estimates put the number of nesting pigeons at 136 million."

A sign in the exhibit quotes an 1857 finding of the Ohio Senate, contemplating a bill to protect the birds: "The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific ... it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow and no ordinary destruction can lessen them."

Wisconsin farmers, Sullivan notes, would boast of killing "1,200 birds before breakfast."

Yet they were hardly static animals, known as "blue meteors" for their fast, low flying, Sullivan says, adding that pictures of them in the wild do not exist.

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