The potential consequence of de-extinction


February 21, 2014

When pest management professionals (PMPs) think of nuisance birds, the first species that usually comes to mind is the rock pigeon, Columba livia. But the common pigeon wasn’t always the most ubiquitous bird in the United States. When settlers first came to the New World, one of the most commonly encountered birds east of the Rocky Mountains was the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius).

Extinct since 1914, some experts estimate this native pigeon’s population once numbered between 3 billion and 5 billion. Unfortunately, because of habitat loss and overhunting, the last known passenger pigeon, named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The huge migratory flocks and the predictable nesting behavior of passenger pigeons helped contribute to the demise of the species. Nesting sites were densely packed, with as many as 100 nests per tree, with each nest containing a single egg. Hunters would follow the migratory flocks throughout the country and harvest the flightless young squabs by shooting them from the nests — or even burning the trees, causing the helpless birds to jump to safety, where hunters would gather them from the ground. An industry grew up around the birds, ranging from feather-stuffed mattresses to the cheap sale of squabs as food. By 1889, passenger pigeon numbers had shrunk to the thousands. By the early 20th century, they were gone.

Amazingly, the common pigeon professionals battle now is playing a role into cutting-edge research to resurrect the passenger pigeon from extinction. Scientists are working to find ways to engineer the DNA of the passenger pigeon’s closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) to match the DNA extracted from preserved passenger pigeon museum specimens. They intend to insert the DNA into eggs of the common rock pigeon, with hopes the DNA will migrate into the gonads of the developing chick. If all works according to plan, they’ll breed two of these hybrid pigeons to produce a modern-day passenger pigeon.

Although not as closely related to passenger pigeons as the band-tailed pigeon, rock pigeons are thought to be a good candidate for the project because of their easy domestication and ease of care in the laboratory. This type of research might sound like science fiction, but it’s taking place right now in partnership with the University of California-Santa Cruz’s Paleogenomics Lab.

Pest pigeons can be a nuisance by defacing buildings and public spaces and spreading diseases. But in the early 1800s, when passenger pigeon flocks consisted of about one-third of the total bird population in the United States, they also could be considered pests. The high density of birds nesting in trees would produce piles of droppings as deep as a foot. The nutritional requirements of the flocks caused them to pick clean acorns and nuts from trees, and the sheer weight of the roosting birds would cause branches to crack and break.

In the future, when our grandchildren’s children are lamenting the pest control challenges surrounding the resurrected passenger pigeon’s control, they’ll have the pigeon pests of today to thank for their return. pmp

You can reach Dr. Fredericks, technical director for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), at

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