Art exhibit marks 100-year extinction of passenger pigeon, adds to events planned at U-M

September 11, 2014
Written By:
Laurel Thomas

ANN ARBOR—When artists across the country were invited to be part of a traveling exhibit to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, many had no idea of the story they were about to hear.

“As I began my research about the passenger pigeon, and rapidly began to understand the radical, abrupt and total demise of this beautiful bird, my heart ached,” wrote Karen Rand Anderson of Connecticut in her artist statement, upon hearing about how the actions of man had killed off this bird that once roamed the continent freely, in abundant numbers.

“The facts are stunning: a population in the billions eliminated in a few decades. This is an idea I am still processing,” said Eileen Hout of New York.

Both artists are among 14 whose specially commissioned works are part of an art exhibit featured this month and next in the EnviroArt Gallery in the Dana Building on the University of Michigan’s Central Campus.

The oval, reddish-breasted bird once was the most prolific in North America, at one point numbering 6 billion. But one rifle shot into a passing flock could drop as many as a dozen. A single baited net could trap hundreds. Birds were packed into barrels for sale by commercial hunters. Baby pigeons, or squabs, a delicacy, were knocked from nests with poles.

By the mid-1800s they were dying out. The last captive one, named Martha, died Sept. 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Also included in the group of artists is Sara Adlerstein-Gonzalez, associate research scientist in the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment, who also is a visual artist.

“As an ecologist currently working on Great Lakes ecosystems, I am disturbed by the fact that a high number of species have been extirpated in the last decades and more are currently listed as at risk,” Adlerstein-Gonzalez wrote in her statement.

“As natural scientists, we are trained not to advocate for the environment. We can document population declines, establish factors that caused these declines through modeling approaches, make predictions and produce scientific publications. As a visual artist, I am free to express my dismay and advocate for common sense.”

Her work asks the question: How many species do we need anyway?

The extinction 100 years ago was a call to action that inspired the passage of the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the first successful efforts to protect endangered wildlife.

The Dana Building gallery is one of two places on campus that is telling the story of the passenger pigeon. The Museum of Natural History also has an exhibit and numerous events to mark the anniversary.

Ongoing Events
Now through January 2015, Museum of Natural History

  • Exhibit: “A Shadow Over the Earth: The Life and Death of the Passenger Pigeon,” fourth floor temporary exhibits gallery. Four of 32 complete passenger pigeon specimens held by the U-M Museum of Zoology are in the exhibit.

Now through October, Dana Building

  • Art Exhibit: “Moving Targets: Passenger Pigeon Portrait Gallery,” Dana Building EnviroArt Gallery, first floor. Organized by Ann Rosenthal and Steffi Domike, this art exhibit includes works by 14 artists living in states where the bird nested.

Sept. 14 Events
Dana Building

  • Noon-3 p.m.: Walk the gallery with ongoing tours guided by art for the environment SNRE student Genevieve Leet and Program in the Environment students.
  • Noon-3 p.m.: Join in to create chalk art with SNRE web designer, photographer/artist Dave Brenner and SNRE students.
  • 12:30 p.m.: Enjoy a Flocking dance activity with Dance MFA student Patty Solorzano.

Exhibit Museum

  • Noon-5 p.m.: Participate in the Fold the Flock Project—an opportunity to fold origami passenger pigeons to commemorate this iconic species and highlight modern conservation issues.
  • Noon-5 p.m.: View an art installation simulating the arrival of a flock of 1 billion passenger pigeons.
  • 1:30 p.m.: See the film, “From Billions to None,” highlighting the pigeons’ plight and pointing to modern opportunities to conserve biodiversity, and to new species in need of conservation efforts.
  • 3-5 p.m.: Explore the work of poet Keith Taylor and write a poem about the passenger pigeon.

Sept. 19 Event
Dana Building, EnviroArt Gallery

  • 4-5 p.m.: Attend an opening reception for “Moving Targets: Passenger Pigeon Portrait Gallery,” with special guests Joel Greenberg, author of “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” and Ann Rosenthal, one of the exhibit curators.

For exhibit information, contact Kira Berman,, Exhibit Museum; Sara Adlerstein-Gonzalez,, Dana EnviroArt Gallery.

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