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Extinction Exhibit at Nature Museum Raises Alarm About Species Loss

By Paul Biasco | March 20, 2014 7:33am
 The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is preparing to open its latest exhibit, Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction.
Nature's Struggle
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LINCOLN PARK — The newest exhibit at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum hopes to raise alarm to the issues of species loss and a booming human population.

"Nature's Struggle: Survival & Extinction" is set to open at the museum Saturday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

The museum is the institutional home for Project Passenger Pigeon, which hopes to bring attention to the species that once ruled the North American skies, but went extinct 100 years ago.

More than 160 institutions across the country are participating.

The new self-produced exhibit is using the pigeon's demise to explain how biodiversity and the environment have changed over time, the consequences of human actions and how humans can live a more sustainable future.

The museum's exhibit is the largest of its kind in the country related to the project, according to Steve Sullivan, senior curator of urban ecology at the museum.

The exhibit and the project seek to first help visitors first understand what a passenger pigeon was, and second comprehend how the story of the species relates to modern-day issues of extinction.

"It happened 100 years ago; nobody knows what a passenger pigeon is anymore," Sullivan said. "And that's the problem because it's actually happening today. It's just a different organism."

There are two preserved pigeons on display, and the sounds of birds and wildlife fill the space, less so as visitors move on in time periods.

Sullivan and author Joel Greenberg have been planning the project since 2011.

Greenberg's book "Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction," came out to rave reviews earlier this year, and Greenberg gave a speech at the museum to kick off the project. 

In late May and early June, the museum has plans to host a four-day symposium titled "Why Prevent Extinction?" 

Sullivan said he and other scientists see the current issue of overfishing today as mirroring the mass killings of passenger pigeons that led to the death of the last one in 1914.

"I would love to be eating a passenger pigeon tonight for dinner. It's a renewable resource. Why can't I eat it?" Sullivan said. "Well, basically, because the people who came before me were too selfish. They stole it from me."

The entirety of the exhibit doesn't focus solely on the pigeon; it examines three eras through the years 1820, 1905 and 2014.

There is an interactive timeline of the early conservation movement, a portion focusing on the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and its creation as well as a portion focusing on the Nature Museum's Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network.