Laughing Owl, photographed sometime between 1889 and 1910
We often think of extinct animals as little more than forlorn, shabby-looking specimens that have been stuffed and preserved for display in museums; animals trapped in glass boxes as if for eternity rather than frolicking free in the wild. Yet, a few photographs were taken of the 12 extinct (or probably extinct) bird species described here before the last of their kin disappeared, meaning these snapshots have become rare treasures. Let’s remember that on this rather sad trip into the past.
A group of Passenger Pigeons in the aviary of C.O. Whitman, a professor of zoology at the University of Chicago
Many factors can contribute to the extinction of an entire species. These can be genetic – for instance, the ‘pollution’ of purebred species; biological, owing to causes such as predation and disease; or the result of outside forces, like climate change. Sadly, humans have played a major part in the extinction of many different species. The greed of over-hunting and carelessness of habitat destruction have both been blameworthy in such cases. But, sometimes it comes down to simple ignorance of the important role that a species fulfills. Or to the introduction of invasive species. Let’s hope the examples of these already extinct birds educate us on how not to treat other existing species.
We’ve looked at rare photographs of extinct animals like the Thylacine previously on Environmental Graffiti. Now it’s time to peruse some equally scarce snapshots of extinct bird species – all wiped out so recently that their images are preserved on film.
12. South Island Laughing Owl
A young Laughing Owl in its nest under a limestone boulder, photographed in 1909 at Raincliff Station, Opihi River, South Canterbury
The South Island Laughing Owl (Sceloglaux albifacies) was a native of New Zealand (hence its name) that lived in low, rocky areas, as well as forests (on the North Island). No doubt because of its facial markings, it was also known as the White-faced Owl. As for the 'laughing' part of its moniker, it came down to this owl’s “mischievous-sounding calls,” also described as “a loud cry made up of a series of dismal shrieks frequently repeated” and “precisely the same as two men ‘cooeying’ to each other from a distance.” It sure sounds like the bird made a distinctive din; what a shame its fate means it’s a sound our ears will never again hear…
Sadly, the South Island Laughing Owl population was already well on the decline by the 1880s, and the last reports of sightings – and these are unconfirmed – date to 1925 and 1927. Persecution by man and the introduction of more powerful, direct predators like cats and stoats (short-tailed weasels) are the factors now thought to have brought about the extinction of this gentle and unwary bird.
11. Paradise Parrot
A Paradise Parrot in Burnett River, Queensland, photographed in 1922
There’s a strange sense of good fortune about a rare photograph existing of this now-extinct parakeet in the wild. And, if this photo had somehow not been in black and white, it would have done more justice to the species, for the Paradise Parrot (Psephotus pulcherrimus) was an unusually colorful bird – even amongst parrots. The plumage of these mid-sized parrots displayed patches of aqua, turquoise, scarlet, brown and black, and their tails were nearly as long as their bodies.
Two Paradise Parrots beside their nest photographed in 1922
This next shot shows a pair of the extinct Paradise Parrots. The impressive structure on which they’re sitting is their nest – but it’s unlikely they built it themselves; you see, these parrots were known to make hollowed-out termite mounds their home. Natives of central and southern Queensland and northern New South Wales in Australia, paradise parakeets lived in exposed savannah woodland and shrub-filled grassland.
Flamboyant looking as they were, these birds yet suffered a gloomy fate. The last confirmed sighting of one was September 14, 1927. The Paradise Parrot’s limited diet – it only really ate native grass seeds – seems to have contributed to its downfall. A diminished food supply due to factors such as overgrazing, multiplying prickly pears, and – significantly – drought combined with other variables like disease, predation, and trapping and egg-collecting by man. In short, it all led to the bird's extinction.
10. Laysan Rail
Laysan Rail on the ground, photographed in 1913
The Laysan Rail (Limnocorax palmeri), also known as the Laysan Crake, was a native of the Northwest Hawaiian Island that lends it its name. This tiny, flightless bird was only 15 centimeters (5.9 in) long. However, despite its diminutive size and the fact that it was confined to the ground, the Laysan Rail was an aggressive bird, quite capable of fending off rival species for food such as seabirds’ eggs. It was also an opportunistic feeder, eating everything from moths and flies, to leaves and seeds, and even dead seabirds when available.
A breeding Laysan Rail, photographed in 1906
What happened to this plucky fellow? One word: rabbits. And lots of them. After being introduced to Laysan around the turn of the 20th century, the fluffy newcomers, lacking any natural predators, prospered and multiplied like, well, rabbits. Whoever was responsible for bringing the bunnies to the island must have surely regretted it, because soon they had managed to chomp through all of the vegetation cover there. The island soon resembled a desert, and so it was that the last pair of Laysan Rails was seen there in 1923.
Rare footage of the Laysan Rail from 1923
The Laysan Rail was also introduced to other islands, notably to Eastern Island in Midway Atoll in 1891. However, during World War II, rats escaped from a US Navy landing craft and colonized the island, and by 1945 the Laysan Rail was extinct.
9. Eskimo Curlew
A 1962 photo of an Eskimo Curlew in the wild – one of only four known photographs of a living member of the species
The Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis) is – or was – a New World shorebird once found on the tundra in Canada and Alaska’s western Arctic regions. Around 30 centimeters (11.8 in) long and with a long, curved beak, this bird ate snails, other invertebrates and berries while migrating, and insects when stationed on its northerly breeding ground.
Numbering in the millions, the Eskimo Curlew may have once been among the most abundant shorebirds in North America. Its downfall? Hunting. Up to 2 million of the birds were wiped out every year towards the end of the 19th century. There is, however, a glimmer of hope that this curlew may not yet be extinct: sightings were confirmed in 1962 on Galveston Island, TX and in 1963 on Barbados. There have also been several unconfirmed sightings since the 1980s, including one as recently as 2006 in Nova Scotia. If the bird is alive and smart, it’ll continue to keep a low profile.
8. Atitlán Grebe
Plucky looking Atitlán Grebe swimming in the water
Growing up to 50 centimeters (19.7 in) in length, the Atitlán Grebe (Podilymbus gigas) was a cousin of the Pied-billed Grebe and got its name from the region it inhabited – Guatemala’s Lago de Atitlán, which is located at an altitude of 1,700 meters (5,577 ft). This water bird’s decline began in the late 1950s and early '60s, when two invasive species were introduced to the lake: the Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) and the Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides). The fish not only preyed upon the small fish and crabs on which the grebe subsisted, but even gobbled up the water bird’s own chicks!
Although, owing to conservation efforts, the Atitlán Grebe population briefly recovered in 1973, an earthquake in 1976 fractured the lakebed, and the resulting underwater drainage significantly lowered the water level. A final pair of the grebes was spotted in 1989, and soon afterwards the species was declared extinct.
7. Wake Island Rail
One of the rare (if not only) photographs of a Wake Island Rail, snapped in 1936
The Wake Island Rail (Gallirallus wakensis) was endemic to the coral atoll that gave it its name; a landmass situated roughly two-thirds distant between Honolulu and (the nearer) Guam in the North Pacific Ocean. Indeed, this flightless rail was the only native land bird to be found on Wake Island. It lived in the atoll’s Cordia subcordata scrubs, pecking away at insects, mollusks and worms, and possibly even making do without drinking – for Wake Island has no freshwater source. The Wake Island Rail’s inability to fly, along with its geographical isolation, likely contributed to its downfall, as it thus easily fell victim to overhunting.
6. Guam Flycatcher
A Guam Flycatcher on a nest in a clump of bamboo, photographed in 1948
The Guam Flycatcher (Myiagra freycineti) was a striking blue bird and, as its name suggests, a native of Guam, the largest of the Mariana Islands (which are situated west of the Philippines and form part of Microneasia in the western Pacific Ocean).
The Guam Flycatcher is a prime example of a bird whose population suffered a sudden decline due to the attentions of a single voracious predator. Everything seemed to be going fine for the little flycatcher, which was widespread throughout Guam’s forests even as late as the early 1970s. However, the seeds of disaster had been sown with the introduction of the Brown Tree Snake to Guam in the 1940s. This slithery native of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Australia’s northern coast is an expert tree climber, easily able to reach nests even high up in the canopy. It took the Brown Tree Snake just three or four decades to decimate the Guam Flycatcher population. The last sighting of the bird was in 1983.
5. South Island Bushwren
A bit hard to spot but there it is – a South Island Bushwren in the wild, photographed in 1911
It’s no coincidence that the South Island Bushwren (Xenicus longipes) seen here was photographed sitting on the ground. The tiny, 9-centimeter (3.5 in) long bird was practically flightless and mainly ate invertebrates it caught by hopping along tree branches. It also made its nest close to, if not on, the ground. Despite this apparent vulnerability, however, the bushwren was widespread in its native New Zealand. Yet, towards the end of the 19th century, weasels were introduced which, together with the already troublesome rats, preyed on the South Island Bushwren. The last confirmed sighting of one was in 1968.
4. Ivory-billed Woodpecker
An adorable Ivory-billed Woodpecker pair, photographed in 1935
With a length of 51 centimeters (20 in) and a wingspan of 76 centimeters (30 in), the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is – or was – one of the largest woodpeckers on Earth (and, might we add, one of the most photogenic!). The species is known to have mated for life – which might explain why there are several photographs of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in pairs. Not only that, but the birds – native to the old-growth forests of the southeastern US – would also move around together and share parenting responsibilities.
Male ivory-billed woodpecker returning to its nest to relieve the female, photographed in 1935
Yep, that’s right, Ivory-billed Woodpecker parents were known to share their feeding and nurturing responsibilities equally, with both sitting on the eggs and then taking care of the little ones. The feeding would go on for months, with the male bird single-handedly looking after the youngsters at night. Human dads, are you listening?
A male ivory-billed woodpecker, photographed in 1935
No, we haven’t suddenly switched to color photographs. This stunning capture of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is actually a black-and-white photograph that was enhanced with watercoloring. It certainly suits the woodpecker’s red plumage.
A female ivory-billed woodpecker returning to her nest, photographed in 1935
Habitat destruction tied to heavy logging is believed to be the main reason for the drastic decline in Ivory-billed Woodpecker numbers in the late 19th century, although hunting by collectors was also a contributing factor. However, as is the case with the Alaotra Grebe and Eskimo Curlew, there is a slim chance that this bird may not be extinct: the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists it as “Critically Endangered” and “Possibly Extinct”. That said, the last reliable reported sighting seems to have occurred in 2004.
3. Carolina Parakeet
"Doodles", a Carolina Parakeet, in 1906. This rare photo of a live specimen, sitting on a Mr. Bryan, was taken by Doodles’s owner Paul Bartsch.
Sadly, the last wild Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) was killed in Florida in 1904. And, while some of these flamboyantly colored birds remained in captivity, the last of these died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918. This is especially unfortunate because the Carolina Parakeet was the only parrot species indigenous to the East Coast of North America.
Maybe there was a curse, but ‘Incas’, the last of the Carolina Parakeets, died in the same cage in which ‘Martha’, the last of the Passenger Pigeons, met her end four years earlier. What was it that wiped out the Carolina Parakeets? Well, it was a combination of various factors. These included habitat loss through deforestation; the decimation of their population by farmers who considered them pests; and their beautiful green, yellow and red feathers, which were used to decorate women’s hats. And, while it remains something of a mystery, the final straw for the already decimated parakeet population may have been a deadly poultry disease.
2. Passenger Pigeon
A female Passenger Pigeon, photographed in captivity in 1898
The story of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is particularly heartbreaking because its fall from grace was so dramatic: in 1800s, it was one the world’s most plentiful birds, but by the beginning of the next century it had been driven to extinction. According to some estimates, there may have been as many as five billion Passenger Pigeons in the United States when the first settlers arrived from Europe.
Passenger Pigeon chick, photographed in 1896
Given its once large numbers, it’s perhaps no surprise to learn that the Passenger Pigeon’s migratory flocks were huge – but just how huge still beggars belief. Only the swarms of Rocky Mountain locusts are said to have been larger. And, while we’re not sure we can even picture this, some flocks reportedly contained over two billion birds and were big enough to partially block out the sun. Consider the fact that these groups of pigeons could be 1.6 kilometers (1 mi) wide and 500 kilometers (300 mi) long!
A Passenger Pigeon in its nest, photographed in 1896
So what drove such an abundant bird to extinction? Sadly, if predictably, humans. Hunting was certainly a major factor – with the masses of nesting birds particularly prone to slaughter by human hands.
In the 19th century, pigeon meat became popular as a cheap food to give to slaves and the poor. Commercialization of the meat led to hunting on a massive scale, with a devastating drop in Passenger Pigeon numbers occurring in just 20 years, between 1870 and 1890.
Loss of habitat thanks to deforestation also contributed to the downfall of the Passenger Pigeon, and an infectious bird disease (Newcastle Disease) may have also played its part. Once the large numbers needed for breeding had been depleted, it proved impossible to reverse the fate of the species. What’s more, bills aimed at preserving the species were ignored, or their laws were weakly enforced. Martha, probably the world's last remaining passenger pigeon, died in captivity on September 1, 1914.
1. Alaotra Grebe
The only known photograph of an Alaotra Grebe, photographed no later than 1985
Although this photo is in color and was taken fairly recently, we simply had to include it, as it is not simply a rare photograph of an Alaotra Grebe in the wild, but the only known photo of the species. Period.
The Alaotra Grebe (Tachybaptus rufolavatus) got its name from Lake Alaotra in Madagascar, the place to which it is – or was – native. The population of the grebe fell during the 20th century primarily as a result of habitat destruction and – in similar fashion to the Atitlan Grebe of Guatemala – the introduction of two carnivorous types of invasive fish, Micropterus and Ophiocephalus. Another factor may have been a weakened gene pool due to inter-breeding with migratory Little Grebes.
The good news is that there is a small chance the Alaotra Grebe may not be extinct. It hasn’t been sighted since around 1985, although related grebe species have been seen in a nearby lake away from human settlements. For now, though, it is listed as "Critically Endangered" on the IUCN Red List and as “Possibly Extinct” by BirdLife International.
As we have seen, habitat destruction, overhunting, overgrazing, disease, predation, natural disaster and even geographic isolation are just some of the factors that have led to the extinction of these beautiful birds. It sure is sad to have to write in the past tense when describing them, but at least we have a few rare images to remember them by – and hopefully help teach us a lesson.