Written By: Sarah Girton
The world is full of thousands of amazing bird species. But human activity has driven many to extinction. An article published in the academic journal PLoS Biology estimates that 129 species of birds have gone extinct since 1500 due to human activity. For much of human history, the concept of extinction was not well understood or studied. But there is good news. Because of extreme efforts from scientists, conservationists, and others over the past hundred or so years, we now know just how fragile bird populations can be. Most importantly, we now know what can be done to keep the known 10,000 extant species from falling victim to the same fate.
This blog series will be in 3 parts. The first two will cover species that have gone extinct due to human activity. The final article will cover species that were believed extinct but re-discovered, as well as species that were on the brink of extinction but have made amazing comebacks thanks to human intervention.
Here are 5 birds who we have lost in the last 500 years.
The Dodo, a relative of modern doves and pigeons, was a resident of the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar. When Dutch sailors arrived in 1598, they brought with them a host of non-native animals including dogs, pigs, and cats…all of which plundered Dodo nests. Along with deforestation, it is believed the Dodo was totally extinct by approximately 1693.
The only information we do have about these birds is from paintings and written records by Dutch settlers. According to these accounts, their plumage was a greyish brown, with a tuft of curly feathers on its rear end. They had a mostly naked head, and a green, black, and yellow beak. Their legs were yellow with black claws.
As far as their behavior is concerned, even less is known. Since they had never seen humans before, the Dodo had no fear of them. Skeleton analyses suggest the Dodo was a fast runner. They nested on the ground. One account said the nest the author found had only a single egg.
The insult “dodo”, meaning stupid, stems from the Dodo’s supposed stupidity and its tendency to be easily caught. Personally, I’m not a fan of that!
- Great Auk
A bird that once numbered in the millions, the Great Auk became officially extinct in the mid-19th century. This large member of the Alcidae family, which includes guillemots, auklets, and puffins, was prized by Europeans for its down.
The Great Auk stood around 30 inches tall, and weighed approximately 11 pounds. It mostly lived and nested in the North Atlantic, but could also be found as far south as Italy and Florida. They nested along cliffs and rocky shorelines, laying only a single egg each breeding season.
Like the Dodo, the Great Auk did not display fear around humans. Between this and their awkwardness on land, they were easy targets for hunters and collectors.
- Elephant Bird
Elephant Birds are an extinct family of birds that once inhabited the island of Madagascar. Scientists are not certain on exactly when Elephant Birds went extinct, but it was likely sometime around the year 1000, based on the radiocarbon dating of the bones that we’ve found. The bird was almost certainly hunted to extinction by local human populations.
The exact number of species in this family is unknown due to unreliable records and sources. An article published in the journal Royal Society Open Science identifies four distinct species.
These large, flightless birds could stand up to 9.8 feet tall, and weigh up to 1600 pounds. Naturally, they laid the biggest eggs of any known bird: They measured up to 13 inches long and weighed as much as 22 pounds.
- Alaotra Grebe
The Alaotra Grebe was an aquatic diving bird that was also endemic to Madagascar. These birds lived solely at Lake Alaotra, so it became especially vulnerable to human activity. It was declared extinct in 2010, although the last one had not been seen since the 80s. The below photo is the only one known to exist.
Like most grebes, the Alaotra Grebe fed mostly on fish. Not much is known about their behavior, especially where the breeding season is concerned. Breeding took place largely between January and March. Habitat destruction, and predation by the Blotched Snakehead, an invasive species of fish were the main contributors to its extinction.
- Passenger Pigeon
No other species represents the Holocene extinction event like the Passenger Pigeon. This bird, once numbering in the billions, was hunted to extinction by 1901, after one hundred years of overhunting by European settlers.
The Passenger Pigeon lived mostly in the eastern half of North America. They were a migratory species, always on the lookout for food sources and shelter. These birds were incredibly social; they nested together, migrated together, and fed together. Flocks would often number in the millions, and would take hours to pass overhead.
Among their favorite foods were acorns and other tree nuts, berries, and insects. Given their numbers, it made sense to have such a diverse diet!
The most famous Passenger Pigeon is Martha, a captive female who passed away in 1914. She is widely believed to have been the last living of her species, and so she has become a symbol of unchecked overhunting and habitat destruction.
Next week we will discuss 5 more extinct bird species, before switching topics to birds who have made a comeback!