Passenger Pigeon Extinction

Published: 12.03.2017
Level 6   |   Time: 4:43
Accent: Canadian, British
Source: Quirks & Quarks (11.18.2017)

Why did the most abundant bird in the world go extinct in just 50 years?


You can download the file [ HERE ].


triangle Directions

  1. REVIEW the vocabulary.
  2. LISTEN to the audio above.
  3. ANSWER the questions.
  4. CHECK your answers (Show Answers)

triangle Vocabulary

  • extinction [n] - having no living members
  • demise [n] - death
  • a flock [n] - a group of birds
  • vulnerable [adj] - weak / helpless / defenseless
  • a specimen [n] - an individual animal used for scientific study
  • sleek [adj] - smooth
  • aerodynamic [adj] - smooth so as not to create drag from wind
  • get my head around that [exp] - understand that
  • swaths [n] - a broad strip or area of something
  • nomadic [adj] - having no permanent home
  • habitat [n] - the natural home or environment of an animal
  • acorns [n] - the fruit of oak trees
  • chips [n] - potato chips
  • sexual dimorphism [exp] - the males and females in a species are physically (morphologically) different
  • raised in captivity [exp] - raised by humans / not wild
  • breed [v] - have babies
  • extinct [adj] - gone, disappeared
  • It is unheard of. [exp] - It is very very very rare.
  • well-adapted [adj] - fitted suitably into an environment
  • sociable [adj] - like to be in large groups
  • collaborate [v] - work together / use teamwork
  • rear [v] - raise and care for (babies)
  • young [n] - babies
  • dense [adj] - many members in a small space
  • safety in numbers [exp] - protection from enemies by being in a large group
  • ecology [n] - the study of how an animal relates to its environment

[n] - noun,  [v] - verb,  [adj] - adjective,  [exp] - expression

triangle Comprehension Questions

  1. What was the most abundant bird in North America in the 19th century?
    carrier pigeons
    passenger pigeons

  2. How many passenger pigeons were there in the 19th century?
    almost 3 billion
    3 to 5 billion
    more than 5 billion

  3. How many passenger pigeons are there now?
    about 3 billion
    a few hundred

  4. What was one cause of the extinction of passenger pigeons?
    climate change
    lack of food

  5. How did Dr. Murray and her team do research on passenger pigeons?
    They caught and studied specimens.
    They looked at old videos and photographs of specimens.
    They studied specimens from museums.

  6. What was a unique feature of the passenger pigeon?
    They had very few young.
    They flew in very large flocks.
    They could fly very fast.

  7. What would happen when a flock of passenger pigeons flew overhead?
    They would hunt and kill small animals.
    They would fight with other types of birds.
    They would block out the sun.

  8. Where were passenger pigeons located?
    in the Rocky Mountains
    east of the Rocky Mountains
    west of the Rocky Mountains

  9. What did passenger pigeons eat?

  10. Why did farmers dislike passenger pigeons?
    They were hard to catch.
    They ate farmers' crops.
    They were very loud.

  11. How were males different from females?
    Males had a bright red chest.
    Males were much bigger.
    Males ate a lot more than females.

  12. Who was Martha?
    a scientist
    a museum worker
    the last passenger pigeon

  13. Where was the last passenger pigeon located?

  14. How many babies did the last passenger pigeon have?

  15. Why is the extinction of the passenger pigeon so shocking?
    It was a very dramatic decline in numbers.
    It was the first bird to go extinct.
    It was hard to kill them.

  16. Why did people mainly hunt passenger pigeons?
    for food
    to protect their farms
    for sport

  17. What are some of the causes of passenger pigeon extinction?
    human hunting
    habitat destruction
    other predators
    poor adaptation to living in a small population

  18. What were passenger pigeons well-adapted to?
    Living in small groups.
    Living in large groups.
    Living in warm climates.
    Living in cold climates.

  19. What activities did passenger pigeons collaborate (work together) on?
    finding food
    hiding from predators
    hiding nuts
    raising young

  20. What advantage did living in a large population offer passenger pigeons?
    It was easier for them to find food.
    They were able to travel faster.
    They were safer from predators.

  21. What does Dr. Murray think is the most important cause of passenger pigeon extinction?
    human activities
    climate change
    lack of food

triangle TOEFL Questions

  1. What is the discussion mainly about?
    (A) How passenger pigeons found food
    (B) The life cycle of passenger pigeons
    (C) Why passenger pigeons went extinct
    (D) The last living passenger pigeon

  2. What differences between regular pigeons and passenger pigeons does the professor mention?
    [Click two answers.]
    (A) Passenger pigeons were smoother.
    (B) Passenger pigeons were bigger.
    (C) Passenger pigeons flew in very big flocks.
    (D) Passenger pigeons were smarter.

  3. Why does the professor say this?

    (A) To demonstrate how big passenger pigeons were
    (B) To explain the time of day when passenger pigeons were most active
    (C) To point out the eating habits of passenger pigeons
    (D) To exemplify how large passenger pigeon flocks were

  4. On the map below, identify the areas in North America where passenger pigeons lived.
    [Click two answers.]

  5. Why did farmers dislike passenger pigeons?
    (A) Passenger pigeons ate their crops.
    (B) Passenger pigeons often attacked their livestock.
    (C) Passenger pigeons blocked out the sun.
    (D) Passenger pigeons spread disease.

  6. Identify the male passenger pigeon from the pictures below.
    (A) image
    (B) image
    (C) image
    (D) image

  7. Which of the following statements are true for Martha.
    [Click two answers.]
    (A) She lived in a zoo.
    (B) She was the last passenger pigeon to breed.
    (C) She died in 1914.
    (D) She had a bright red breast.

  8. According to the professor, why is the extinction of passenger pigeons so shocking?
    (A) It happened very recently.
    (B) It happened very quickly.
    (C) It happened despite numerous efforts to protect them.
    (D) It was caused by humans

  9. The professor describes some of the reasons that passenger pigeons went extinct. Which of the following does she mention?
    [Click three answers.]
    (A) Their poor adaptation to living in a small population
    (B) The destruction of their habitat
    (C) Their inability to breed
    (D) A lack of food
    (E) Hunting by humans

  10. What does the man mean when he says this?

    (A) Passenger pigeons flocks were too large.
    (B) Passenger pigeons flocks were too small.
    (C) Passenger pigeons were safer when they were in large flocks.
    (D) Passenger pigeons were safer when they were in small flocks.

  11. According to the professor, what was the primary cause of passenger pigeon extinction?
    (A) Ecological factors
    (B) Climate change
    (C) Human activity
    (D) Their breeding habits

triangle Script

In the 19th century, passenger pigeons numbered between 3 billion and 5 billion. It's thought that they were the most abundant bird in North America, perhaps even the world. When the birds were suddenly driven to extinction in a matter of decades, scientists knew hunting likely played a part in their demise. But why were such large flocks so vulnerable? Could there be more going on? Dr. Jemma Murray is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz. She and her team went searching through museum specimens for some clues. Dr. Murray welcome to the program.


First of all, tell me about passenger pigeons. What were they like?

They were sort of you know in some respects quite similar to the pigeons you see around, but they were sleeker. They were slightly more aerodynamic. And I think the most remarkable thing was that they flew in these huge flocks. The flocks, they apparently could number millions and even billions of birds. And so when one of these flocks flew overhead, they would be described as darkening the sky, so blocking out the sun. It was a pretty remarkable thing to see.

It's hard to get my head around that, about just how many birds there were. Where were they found?

So they were found across large swathes of North America, so the USA and Canada. The whole regions of East of the Rocky Mountains. They were a nomadic species, and so they'd go around in these huge flocks in search of food and habitat.

What do they eat?

They definitely liked nuts from forests, so acorns and things like that. But I think they would be very happy to eat people's crops as well. So I think they weren't particularly popular.

They're probably quite different from the pigeons today who like to eat garbage and chips and whatever else we throw at them.

Yes exactly yeah.

Was there a difference between the males and females?

Yeah, there was sexual dimorphism, so the males had this sort of very reddish chest, kind of like a robin, whereas the females are slightly sort of lighter and duller colors.

Now there's a story about how the very last passenger pigeon died. Tell me about that.

The last known passenger pigeon anyway was called Martha. She lived in the Cincinnati Zoo. And so she died of old age at the age I think it's estimated 29 years old in 1914. There was a group of passenger pigeons that were sort of raised in captivity, and she was one of them. They realize the population was in trouble, and there were awards out there for people to provide males to breed with her because they really wanted to revitalize the population when they could. Sadly, she did not. She did not breed, and so she was the last living.

We hear of animals going extinct all the time. Why do you think the passenger pigeon gets so much attention?

It's just such a dramatic decline at first. Billions of individuals to go extinct in just a matter of a few decades is pretty unheard of. And so just sort of the size of this population and how quickly it went extinct is pretty shocking.

What were the ideas on why they went extinct before your study?

Well I think everyone realizes that they're definitely the main factor was humans. So we hunted them. There was this commercial level harvest of these birds. They were a really great and easy food source. Their flocks are so dense that if you shut off a rifle up in the air, several pigeons would you know just fall to the ground because they were just so dense. And they were also like caught in huge nets, and so they were transported across the country to feed people. And I don’t think people expected them to just go extinct like that. We are also cutting down forests at the same time as we are hunting this species, so we were destroying their habitat and some of their food sources. So other studies have suggested that, so that’s also potentially an issue.

And other people have suggested that passenger pigeons may have been sort of well adapted to living large population sizes. They were known to be really sociable species. They collaborated in finding food, and they also collaborated in rearing their young. So so maybe these sorts of behaviors, while they are really advantageous when their population was really large and really dense, maybe they they sort of made them struggle more when they were sort of hunting resulted in their population becoming a lot smaller and potentially sort of less dense and more disparate.

Oh I see. They needed safety in numbers.

Maybe yes so yeah likely as well so the large population size would have meant that it would protect you from predators.

In your study then do you think that the demise of the passenger pigeon was entirely human caused or do you think that there could have been some natural affection there as well?

Without us hunting them passenger pigeons we've got no reason to think that they would have gone extinct. But saying that, there's potentially some aspects of their ecology or their natural history which meant they were a little bit more vulnerable than they might have been otherwise and to a really rapid decline.

Dr. Murray, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you very much. It's been very nice talking to you.

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