Extinct birds offer lesson in state's past

February 11, 1994|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,Contributing Writer

When the Bear Branch Nature Center opened last year, one of the grand opening displays was an exhibit of four extinct birds that once were common in Maryland.

That exhibit can be seen through Feb. 19, when the stuffed birds must be returned to the Smithsonian Institution, which lent them to Bear Branch.

"We have a volunteer, Jim Davis, who has a lot of contacts and knows people at the Smithsonian, so he contacted them for us," said Heather Davis, a naturalist with the nature center.

"The Smithsonian has a lot of exhibits that are not on public display, and they loaned us these rare birds," she said.

Examples of the ivory-billed woodpecker, passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet and heath hen can be seen in an exhibit that also details the birds' natural habitat at a time when thousands of them could be seen in the skies over Maryland.

"Mr. Davis did all the research on the birds and set up the display showing their natural habitat, and we made pamphlets about the birds for people to take free of charge," Ms. Davis said.

To add to the habitat setting, Ms. Davis and Tina Shupp painted a background scene for the exhibit, which Ms. Davis said is small but important.

"There are so few mounted specimens of these birds that we're lucky to get them," she said. "There were tons of passenger pigeons; the sky would be black with them."

The passenger pigeon disappeared when hunters exploited the bird to supply meat markets in New York and Chicago. The birds' large colonies made killing them easy. Add to that a low reproductive rate, and the pigeons disappeared by 1900.

The ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest North American woodpecker, disappeared when the timber industry invaded the birds' habitat. The last official sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker was in 1946.

"There is some speculation that a few ivory-billed woodpeckers remain in Cuba and Florida, but it hasn't been proved," Ms. Davis said.

The Carolina parakeet was killed for two reasons: its plumage as a fashion accessory and because it ate the fruit out of farmers' orchards. Also popular as a pet, the bird disappeared by 1918.

The heath hen, also easy to hunt, was killed for food by the early colonists. This eastern species of the prairie chicken died out in 1932.

For those who haven't seen the display, Ms. Davis urges a visit before the exhibit closes. The Nature Center, on the grounds of Hashawha Environmental Center at 300 John Owings Road, north of Westminster off Route 97, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Information: 848-2517.

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