The Birds We've Lost: 10 Incredible Avian Species That Are Gone Forever

Passenger Pigeon

Andrew Howe/Getty Images

From the passenger pigeon to the laughing owl, here is but a small sampling of the mighty birds that are now extinct. Glorious are the birds. These beautiful nimble creatures that take to the sky and fill the air with song are some of the most fascinating and inspiring creations that Mother Nature has to offer ... and mankind is managing to kill them off. Over the course of the last five centuries, approximately 150 bird species have gone extinct thanks to us. And the research suggests that rate at which they are becoming extinct is increasing; if current trends persist, the rate will be ten times higher by the end of this century. As of now, more than 1,300 other bird species are threatened with extinction. Not only is the planet losing some of its most joyous inhabitants, but in terms of the canary-in-the-coalmine scenario, it doesn't bode well for us humans either. Here are just a few we've lost. How far will we go until we stop this ongoing tragedy and realize how much more we have to lose?

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Laughing Owl

credit: Henry Charles Clarke Wright / John Kendrick (Te Papa Museum)

Endemic to New Zealand, Sceloglaux albifacies, pictured above, was becoming rare by the late 19th century; the last known one of the species was found dead in Canterbury, New Zealand on July 5, 1914. Famous for its uncanny call, hence the name, its sound was variously described as "a loud cry made up of a series of dismal shrieks frequently repeated"; "A peculiar barking noise"; and "A melancholy hooting note" ... in addition to random whistling, chuckling, and mewing. According to some, laughing owls were attracted to the sound of accordions playing. The extinction of this charming and gentle-natured bird was caused by habitat modification, collection of specimens, and the introduction of mammal predators such as cats.

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Carolina Parakeet

credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm

It's almost hard to believe that the eastern United States one had a native parakeet, but sure enough we did. The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) once lived from southern New York and Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico. Sadly, their once plentiful numbers faced threats from a number of sources. Much of their forest habitat was converted for agriculture and their vividly colored feathers made them a popular choice in the exuberant hat fashions of the day. They were also in high demand as pets. Tragically, their taste for fruit made them a target of farmers. As John J. Audubon wrote in Birds of America:

Do not imagine, reader, that all these outrages are borne without severe retaliation on the part of the planters. So far from this, the Parakeets are destroyed in great numbers, for whilst busily engaged in plucking off the fruits or tearing the grain from the stacks, the husbandman approaches them with perfect ease, and commits great slaughter among them. All the survivors rise, shriek, fly round about for a few minutes, and again alight on the very place of most imminent danger. The gun is kept at work; eight or ten, or even twenty, are killed at every discharge. The living birds, as if conscious of the death of their companions, sweep over their bodies, screaming as loud as ever, but still return to the stack to be shot at, until so few remain alive, that the farmer does not consider it worth his while to spend more of his ammunition.

Uhg. According to the Audubon Center, the "last known wild specimen was killed in Okeechobee County, Florida, in 1904, and the last captive bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21, 1918."

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Turquoise-Throated Puffleg

credit: J. Gould/A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or family of humming-birds

Not much is known about the turquoise-throated puffleg, Eriocnemis godini, since all we can gather is from six 19th century specimens from Ecuador or near about. What we do know that it was an exceedingly lovely bird, complete with poofy feathered pom-pom legs and remarkable coloring. Because there was a single, unconfirmed sighting near Quito, in 1976, IUCN does not consider it officially extinct yet, even though targeted searches have failed to find any. IUCN writes:

This species has not been recorded since the nineteenth century (only the type-specimen taken in 1850 has any locality information), the habitat at the type-locality has been almost completely destroyed, and searches specifically for this species in the area in 1980 failed. However, it cannot yet be presumed to be Extinct because there was an unconfirmed record in 1976, and further searches of remnant habitat are required. Any remaining population is assumed to be tiny (numbering fewer than 50 individuals and mature individuals), with no confirmed records since the 19th century.

So while none have been seen in over a century and their habitat has been completely eradicated, there's still hope that a small population is hiding out in the forest somewhere, awaiting the day when their habitat is restored and the forests will be filled with flitting pop-pom legged hummingbirds.

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Passenger Pigeon

credit: Stuffed male/live female (Wikimedia Commons)

The story of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, is a cautionary tale if there ever was one. Once the most abundant bird in North America – if not the world – they flew in flocks throughout the eastern and midwestern United States and Canada in numbers so vast they darkened the sky. In both city and forest, they ruled the roost. That they were delicious to hungry bird eaters was their downfall. But while people hunting for subsistence didn’t do the species in, technological advances, indirectly, did. As Audubon magazine explains, following the Civil War came the national expansions of the telegraph and the railroad, which allowed a commercial pigeon industry to bloom – from hunting and packing to shipping and distributing. And it was a messy business, indeed. Audubon notes:

The professionals and amateurs together outflocked their quarry with brute force. They shot the pigeons and trapped them with nets, torched their roosts, and asphyxiated them with burning sulfur. They attacked the birds with rakes, pitchforks, and potatoes. They poisoned them with whiskey-soaked corn.

When there once were millions or even billions, by the mid-1890s, wild flocks dwindled to the dozens. And then there were none, save for three captive breeding flocks. And finally, the last known passenger pigeon, a 29-year old female known as Martha, died September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

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Greak Auk

credit: Wikimedia Commons

Once numbering in the millions, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was found in the North Atlantic coastal waters along the coasts of Canada, the northeastern United States, Norway, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Great Britain, France, and the Iberian Peninsula. The gorgeously gawky flightless bird stood at nearly three feet in height and while unrelated to what we know as penguins, they are the reasons penguins were called such – sailors named penguins after them because of their similarities. While the hardy birds survived for millennia, they were no match for modern mankind. In the mid-16th century, European sailors began harvesting the eggs of nesting adults, which was the beginning of the end. “Overharvesting by people doomed the species to extinction,” says Helen James, a research zoologist at the Natural History Museum. “Living in the North Atlantic where there were plenty of sailors and fishermen at sea over the centuries, and having the habit of breeding colonially on only a small number of islands, was a lethal combination of traits for the Great Auk.” In addition, the beleaguered birds' insulating feathers made them a target for the down industry. "After exhausting its supply of eider duck feathers in 1760 (also due to overhunting), feather companies sent crews to Great Auk nesting grounds on Funk Island," notes Smithsonian. "The birds were harvested every spring until, by 1810, every last bird on the island was killed." According to the IUCN, the last live great auk was seen in 1852.

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Choiseul Crested Pigeon

credit: Stamp / John Gerrard Keulemans (1904)

Whenever people start complaining about city pigeons, they could remember that it's not a pigeon's fault that we humans came in and built cities – and that when left to their own devices, members of the pigeon family are downright majestic. Case in point: The Choiseul crested pigeon, Microgoura meeki. This beauty of a bird is thought to have been endemic to Choiseul, Solomon Islands, from where six skins and a single egg were collected. Biologists believe that it lived in lowland forests and swamps, nesting on the ground; it was reported to be a tame bird in manner. Unfortunately, despite searchers and interviews with locals, the species has not been recorded since 1904 and is now officially considered extinct. Since suitable habitat still exists, its demise is blamed on feral dogs and especially cats that were introduced to the island.

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Cuban Macaw

credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Cuban macaw, Ara tricolor, was a glorious, if not petite, species of macaw native to the main island of Cuba and likely the Isle of Pines. The last time one was seen was in 1855. The 20-inch long exotic beauty lived in forest habitat, as it nested in trees with large holes; Its extinction was caused by hunting for food and felling of nesting trees to capture young birds for pets, explains IUCN. It was also traded and hunted by Amerindians, and by Europeans after their appearance in the 15th century. Many of the macaws were dragged to Europe where they served as pets; it's likely that several hurricanes had an impact on their habitat, and thus their population, as well.

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Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

credit: Wikimedia Commons

This massive woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is like the Elvis Presley of birds. A resident of virgin forest areas of the Southeastern United States, there hasn't been a confirmed sighting since 1944 and the woodpecker was thought to be extinct. But claims of sightings since 2004 have been reported, although unconfirmed, giving hope to fans of the giant woodpecking beauties. It has been enough for the IUCN to not call the species 100 percent extinct at this point:

Strong claims for this species's persistence in Arkansas and Florida (USA) have emerged since 2004 although the evidence remains highly controversial. It may also survive in south-eastern Cuba, but there have been no confirmed records since 1987 despite many searches. If extant, the global population is likely to be tiny, and for these reasons it is treated as Critically Endangered.

At nearly 20 inches in length and a wingspan reaching 30 inches, this bird was/is the largest woodpecker in the U.S. and among the largest in the world. Once a prominent (and audible) feature of the forests, their rapid decline began in the 1800s as their virgin forest habitat was decimated by logging. By the 1900s, they were nearly gone and the few remaining birds were killed by hunters.

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credit: The Edwards' Dodo; specimen, as painted by Roelant Savery in the late 1620s.

No list of vanished animals – and even more so birds – would be complete without mention of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus), the poster child for man's folly, and the organisms we've driven into extinction. The flightless bird found only on the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, was done in by a one-two punch of being hunted by settlers and sailors, as well as nest predation by introduced pigs. While the dodo's exact appearance remains a bit of a mystery, we know that it was a large and heavy bird – over three feet tall and weighing up to almost 40 pounds. It was slow and tame, making it easy prey for hungry hunters – one of the reasons that their name has become synonymous with a lack of intelligence. "When the island was discovered in the late 1500s, the dodos living there had no fear of humans and they were herded onto boats and used as fresh meat for sailors," says Eugenia Gold from the AMNH. "Because of that behavior and invasive species that were introduced to the island [by humans], they disappeared in less than 100 years after humans arrived. Today, they are almost exclusively known for becoming extinct, and I think that's why we've given them this reputation of being dumb." As it turns out, modern research reveals that the clumsy birds were well-adapted to their environment, and weren't so dumb at all.

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Kaua'i 'O'o

credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kaua'i 'O'o (Moho braccatus) belonged to the now-extinct genus of ʻOʻos (Moho) within the now-extinct family Mohoidae from the Hawai'i islands. Seeing a trend there? Gone also are its relatives, the Hawaiʻi ʻOʻo, Bishop's Oʻo, and Oʻahu Oʻo, among others. M. braccatus was endemic to the island of Kaua'i. The eight-inch nectar-sipping songbird was once plentiful in the forests, but dramatically declined during the early 20th century. By the 1970s, they were only known to exist within a wilderness preserve. IUCN blames the sweet bird's demise on habitat destruction and the introduction of black rats, pigs, and disease-carrying mosquitoes to the lowlands. By 1981, only a single pair of the birds that mate for life remained. The female was last seen prior to Hurricane Iwa in 1982, the male was last seen in 1985. The last male was recorded for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, singing a mating call to the lost female, as can be heard in the video below. He died in 1987.

And to fend off the depression that this incidence might incite, there could be a slight whisper of hope. The species was proclaimed extinct twice before – in the 1940s, rediscovered in 1950, and again in the late 1950s, only to be rediscovered once again in the 1970s. Although searches have turned up not a trace in the last few decades, here's to hoping that somewhere in the forests of Kaua'i, some fugitive Oʻos are living the sweet life.