Monday, March 11, 2013

Where are They Now: The Passenger Pigeon

 The Inspiration. In one of the courses I teach, students are required to select a topic from a list that I provide; and then determine what they would like to know about that topic. I assess them on how well they reached their learning goals. This has become a fun course for the students and for me. For the students it is not often that they have the opportunity to design a course around their own learning goals. For me each semester the course changes based on the students interests… and I have the opportunity to learn quite a bit. 

A few semesters ago one of my students’ learning objectives had her looking at 3 extinct species. She studied each species, its habitat, and the reason for its extinction. As she shared what she had learned about these species I was amazed (all over again) at the destructive capacity of europeans. Studies of species extinction is a good tool for learning about both science and racism white supremacy. Let’s look at one example: the passenger pigeon.

The Good Times. The passenger pigeon (ectopistes migratorius) was noted for its large numbers. It was not unusual for a one flock to block the sun for hours as it flew by. Passenger pigeons were so numerous that flocks of the species had to be measured in square miles. The passenger pigeon is native to North America and upon the arrival of europeans it was regarded as one of the most abundant species of bird on the planet. One of its primary contributions to the ecosystem was that it was an efficient fertilizer. Pound for pound it dropped the most pigeon poop around.J Another primary contribution is that along with fertilizer it spread the seeds of vegetation that it ate. This helped to propagate a wide range of plant species. Perhaps a secondary contribution is that it served as wolf chow, hawk chow, weasel chow, and fox chow.

The Horror. The passenger pigeon was destroyed by the european. The first thing this weapon of mass destruction did to the poor passenger pigeon was to destroy its habitat. By clear cutting forests (ostensibly to build more wal-marts and gas stations) the passenger pigeon had fewer safe places to live and nest. The second thing this weapon of mass destruction did was to hunt the passenger pigeon into extinction. Someone had the bright idea of using the bird for slave chow. These brave hunters would soak grain and seeds in alcohol and leave it out for the pigeons to feed. The intoxicated pigeons would then be easier to kill[1]. There are a number of sources documenting the rate at which the passenger pigeon was killed. In one city in Michigan, upwards of 50,000 birds were killed per day over a 5 month period[2]. Blanchan’s book Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted is a very good documentary source. By european records the last passenger pigeon died in 1914.

There are many other extinct species that we could study: the dodo, rocky mountain locusts, blue walleye, the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, the Tasmanian Tiger (thylacine), even the Tasmanian are just a few. As we explore these many different cases, and causes of extinction, we should be vigilant in our search for patterns and recurring themes. What do you think we will find? Until next time…


And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit:

[1] Writing Activity: Write a short essay describing another historical or contemporary instance of europeans using alcohol to kill or otherwise exploit another species.
[2] Math Activity: If 50,000 pigeons were killed each day, how many were killed each hour? Each minute? Each second? Remember that this is the number of birds killed every second, every minute of every day, for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for nearly half a year… in only 1 city. That is a lot of killing!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Springtime Family Fun

Rich Opportunities. It may not seem like it, but winter is nearly over and spring is just around the corner. Although there is a great deal to learn from the natural world all year round, many features become pronounced as seasons change. In this way the changing seasons provide rich opportunities for Afrikans of all ages to learn more about the natural world. This week I am going to suggest an educational and entertaining activity that families can do together. Gentlemen, you might also want to try this one on that fine young lady that you are trying to woo. It will help you to stand out from the crowd!

The ultimate goal here is for us to become better at identifying various types of trees. “Who needs to identify different types of trees?” you may ask. In euro-land no one does because euro-man does everything for you. However, in the natural world, Afrikan people are wise stewards of God’s creation. In this role we not only identify but also understand the many millions of living species with whom we share the planet. Because trees provide us so much (e.g. tools, shelter, food, fire, protection, medicines, and weapons) our knowledge of trees helps us to better master the natural world. So how do we learn to identify trees?

In 5 Easy Steps. There are published field guides that can be used to help us identify and categorize a host of living things. The one that I use for tree identification is produced by the National Audubon Society. Step one is to obtain a field guide. Whether you use one by the National Audubon Society or not, doesn't make much difference at this point. If you purchase a field guide new it will cost about $20. You can also borrow one from a library or to get one used.

Step two is to identify one type of tree that will be the focal point of your attention. It is always good to start with an easily identifiable and common tree. Maple, oak, ash, poplar, willow, sycamore, and birch are among the more common hardwood trees in the US. My son and I lived in Ohio for a few years and we spent some time looking for Buckeye trees. The Ohio Buckeye is the state tree of Ohio. Cedar, fir, hemlock, pine and spruce are among the more popular softwoods. Keep in mind that these are broad categories (specifically genera) of trees. So although we speak of “a maple tree” there are actually hundreds of species of maple trees (sugar maple, silver maple, red maple, and Japanese maple are just a few examples).

Step three is to consult the field guide to learn some of the basic traits of your chosen tree. You will note the bark, the leaf structure, the types of fruit it produces, the type and color of its flowers, the time of year it produces seeds and flower, and the general size and shape of the tree. This is a lot to remember. So, don’t worry if you do not remember everything. In fact, sometimes you can do well with only one or two traits.

Step four is to go out looking for your tree. This is the fun part. Parents can take young children to a park or playground looking for your chosen tree. A bike ride through a tree-lined neighborhood gives us a chance to find our chosen tree. The commute to and from school or work could provide an opportunity to look for our chosen tree. Men, I promised to help you stand out from the crowd. Take that special woman on a nature hike and impress her with your ability to identify a specific tree. I tell you! If you can tell her one or two common uses for the tree! …and treat her to an ice cream Sunday afterwards! …you got you something there.

Step five is to do it again. The more time we spend looking for one type of tree in a variety of settings, over a long period of time, the more natural our knowledge of that tree will become. You do not need to identify all the trees in the book. If you can consistently and effectively recognize 7-10 different types of trees, you have surpassed the average person. Share your ability and insight with others.

And remember… Have Fun!

Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also a member of the (ES)2 Research Program, which works to advance STEM curricula that position people of African descent to improve their current social condition. To learn more about the (ES)2 Research Program visit: