Passenger pigeons' family tree set

Oct. 6, 2010 at 7:28 PM
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill., Oct. 6 (UPI) -- The place of the extinct passenger pigeon in the family tree of pigeons and doves has been determined using century-old DNA samples, researchers say.

With a bit of DNA from stuffed museum specimens, scientists at the University of Illinois have determined the passenger pigeon was most closely related to other North and South American pigeons and not to the morning dove, as was long believed, a university release said.

One of North America's most spectacular birds was also one of the first to be driven to extinction, researchers said.

In the early 1800s it was the most abundant bird species on the planet, living in the eastern and central forests of the United States and parts of eastern Canada. Flocks of passenger pigeons were so vast they darkened the sky, and it could take days for a flock to pass overhead, researchers said.

"It must have been unbelievable to see one of these flocks," Kevin Johnson, an ornithologist at the University of Illinois, said. "There is nothing in modern times that we can compare it to. The passenger pigeon was very nomadic and it formed these huge flocks, in the millions, and breeding colonies in the millions."

Intensive hunting and habitat destruction led to the bird's eventual extinction, Johnson said. The last surviving passenger pigeon, a bird name Martha, died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.

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