LINCOLN PARK — At one point, there were as many as 5 billion passenger pigeons roaming North America, in flocks as large as 1 billion strong.
Marta, the last bird of the species that accounted for 20 percent to 40 percent of all birds in North America, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
To commemorate one century since their extinction, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is heading up Project Passenger Pigeon. It will gather scientists, conservationists, educators, artists, musicians and filmmakers to spread the story of the birds.
"We are trying to tell people about this extraordinary story, but the story has relevance to today," said Joel Greenberg, an adjunct scholar at the museum and author of the new book "Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction."
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was the passenger pigeon's extinction, but today it could be water, fuel or another living thing, particularly in the open oceans.
"If we are not careful, we could lose it," Greenberg said.
The Nature Museum will kick off the "Year of the Passenger Pigeon" Thursday night with an event hosting Greenberg, followed by a year's worth of exhibits and programming.
Deborah Lahey, the president of CEO of the museum, said the history of the passenger pigeon is a "call to action to address the larger issues relation to extinction that confront us each day."
Before their extinction, passenger pigeons' flocks were known to literally cast a shadow over the Earth.
From the early 1860s to the early 1900s, the number of birds dropped from around 3 billion to extinction.
"The birds were gone from the wild in literally 40 years," Greenberg said. "That's just mind boggling."
The downfall could be traced to the invention of the telegraph, according to Greenberg, which quickly spread the message that the flock of a billion-or-so birds had arrived to a certain area.
They were easy hunting.
"Wherever the birds appeared, people killed them," Greenberg said.
The museum has plans to unveil an exhibit called "Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction" March 22, that will use the passenger pigeon story to show how biodiversity and the environment have changed over time.
There are also plans for a symposium on the topic of extinction set for late May.
"For some reason this amazing biological phenomenon has been forgotten by us," said Steve Sullivan, the museum's Curator of Urban Ecology. "If you don't remember what you lost, it's almost like you haven't lost it."
During Thursday night's talk and book-signing, Greenberg will have "Big Blue," the last wild passenger pigeon for which there is an existing specimen, with him Thursday night.
The author actually discovered that "Big Blue" was the oldest existing specimen when he was researching his book, and to say he was thrilled would be an understatement.
"I was like big font OH MY GOSH," Greenberg said. "It was pretty exciting."
That bird, which was shot near Springfield in 1901, had made a voyage from the "very talented" taxidermist, to his daughter who was also a taxidermist and eventually into a collection at Millikin University.
"In my view, the passenger pigeon was unlike any other bird human beings have ever known," Greenberg said.