The Second Cooing: Raising Passenger Pigeons from the Dead

PHOTO: This preserved passenger pigeon, on display at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is shown in Knoxville, Tenn.

The world has been without passenger pigeons since 1914. Now, scientists want to bring them back. Geneticist Ben Novak has embarked on the project and has begun collecting passenger pigeon DNA from natural history museums. His "de-extinction" efforts are not without critics.

The eye sockets of the slender pigeon are filled with light-colored cotton. Its neck feathers shimmer in iridescent colors, and it has a russet chest and a slate-blue head. The yellowed paper tag attached to its left leg reads: "Coll. by Capt. Frank Goss, Neosho Falls, Kansas, July 4, 1875."

Ben Novak lifts up the stuffed bird to study the tag more closely. Then he returns the pigeon to a group of 11 other specimens of the same species, which are resting on their backs in a wooden drawer. "It's easy to see just dead birds," he says. "But imagine them alive, billions of birds. What would they look like in the sky?"

Novak has an audacious plan. He wants to resurrect the passenger pigeon. Vast numbers of the birds once filled the skies over North America. But in 1914 Martha, the last of her species, died in a zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Novak, a researcher with the Long Now Foundation, a California think tank, wants to give the species a second chance. At the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, Novak used a scalpel to slice small tissue samples from the red-painted toes of the passenger pigeons kept there. He hopes to isolate tiny bits of DNA from the samples and use them to assemble an entire genotype. His ultimate goal is the resurrection of the passenger pigeon.

"It should be possible to reconstruct the entire genome of the passenger pigeon," says Novak. "The species is one of the most promising candidates for reintroducing an extinct species."

The art of breathing new life into long-extinct species is in vogue among biologists. The Tasmanian devil, the wooly rhinoceros, the mammoth, the dodo and the gastric-breeding frog are all on the list of candidates for revival. To recover the genetic makeup of species, experts cut pieces of tissue from stuffed zoological rarities, pulverize pieces of bone or search in the freezers of their institutions for samples of extinct animals.

The Dream of "De-Extinction"

The laboratory techniques to create new life with bits of genetic material were pure fantasy in the past. But now scientists believe that the vision could become reality, step by step. Experts in bioengineering, zoologists, ethicists and conservationists recently met in Washington, DC for a public forum on "de-extinction."

"Extinct animals are the most endangered species of them all" because "there is hardly anything left but the DNA," says Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation, which co-hosted the meeting with the National Geographic Society. The current showpiece project in bioengineering is the rebirth of the passenger pigeon.

The story of Ectopistes migratorius is a striking example of human hubris. When the Europeans arrived, the passenger pigeon was probably the most common bird on the American continent. The birds travelled in giant flocks, sometimes several hundred kilometers long. "The air was literally filled with pigeons," naturalist John Audubon wrote in 1831, after observing the spectacle. "The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse."

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