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June 9, 2014

'They Passed like a Cloud' traces abundance to extinction

Despite such incredible abundance in the past, the Passenger Pigeon is now extinct. 2014 marks the 100th year of their disappearance, and it is perhaps better known today as a cautionary tale prompting a call-to-action for environmental awareness.

The MSU Museum presents “They Passed Like a Cloud: Extinction and the Passenger Pigeon,” open now through Jan. 25. The title comes from Chief Pokagon, last chief of the Michigan Potawatomi people, in 1850 as he observed their massive presence, passing through the skies and tree branches.

Easy to hunt and harvest in large numbers, the birds were pushed to the brink. The last documented mighty colony of Passenger Pigeons was in Northern Michigan.

“This exhibit provides a great opportunity to get people to think about our impact on the environment,” said MSU Museum assistant curator of ornithology and assistant professor in the Department of Zoology Pamela C. Rasmussen. “This cautionary tale about our ancestors eliminating one of the world's most abundant birds in a few decades is more relevant now than ever. We tend to take the natural world for granted, but we really can't. Hopefully this exhibit will help create awareness that translates into positive action.”

Exhibitions like this mark the anniversary, promote the conservation of species and habitat, strengthen the relationship between people and nature and foster the sustainable use of natural resources.

A special part of the exhibit is a soundscape Rasmussen is creating to replicate the sound of Passenger Pigeon colonies in flight. Rasmussen developed and maintains a worldwide database of bird vocalizations,, as distinctive bird songs are one of the primary ways ornithologists can identify and distinguish species.