Project Passenger Pigeon

Lessons from the Past for a Sustainable Future

NovakPaintingPainting by Ben Novak



Flights of Fancy

A Tiny Tube of Clear Liquid

A Memoir by Ben J. Novak

Eleven years ago I won best project for my division of the North Dakota State Science Fair, as an eighth grader from a school with less than 100 students in such a way that would characterize the rest of my life greatly.

This junior high science fair is not the story of the beauty and uncertain pivotal moment that occurred today after so many years of life, but it is an important place to start. The boy that won did so with a project that was completely intellectual, and had no experimental portion of any kind. To my family, the family of the boy who won, it was nothing abnormal, but no less extraordinary. It is my great honor to have as family men and women who save lives and perform work beyond the typical. In the love of my family I made it to where I am today.

The project concerned the possibility of someday “cloning the dodo bird”, that iconic poster bird of extinction. Funneled into my education and specialty at this point I still hear questions often of when I will be actually bringing this magnificent creature “back to life”, and my state of occupation brings me to reply that “It would not be cloning the dodo bird, but reconstructing its genome or mutating the genome of a relative bird, which are both possible currently, but will still take many years to complete whenever anyone cares to try.”

At that science fair I learned from a judge from the North Dakota Pigeon Association that the dodo bird was in the pigeon family. This fact struck a chord within me that began to grow and enthrall my curiosity as tendrils of a fig slowly take over a tree and replace it completely with new life. I had little conscious idea of what this inkling of passion would become, or what exactly it was in detail for that matter, but it grew quietly in the recesses of my mind.

My experience with this science fair project lead me to avidly endeavor to broach more abstract concepts, and much to the continuing shock of some western North Dakota citizens – the boy that won, continued to win with more and more research projects that delved into evolution and behavior, the very roots of human society. But the continuation of my science fair stories will bring us only tangent to the point of today’s wonder. The important turning point is that one year later, at the State Science Fair held at Minot North Dakota my parents brought me to a bookstore after the competition…. this would be the moment to affect my life for every day to come. It was in that bookstore that I began looking through a book on the history of conservation efforts by the National Audubon Society, a book I implored my parents to purchase for me, for a reason I did not fully disclose, and still cannot quite fathom. Thumbing by page after page I came to a photograph. I fell in love with that photograph. It was a pigeon. Like the dodo bird, it was an extinct pigeon. But in shape it looked much more like the doves that flew over my prairie home and the pigeons that strut the streets of every city. But unlike them, it was the most beautiful bird I’d ever seen. I needed that photograph. This beautiful bygone species is referred to in common as the passenger pigeon, and to the overcompensating Linnaean Latin science lovers it is Ectopistes migratorius. It was once the most numerous bird in the world, I read in those pages. And no matter how inconceivable the notion had been to mankind, this species succumbed to our interactions in less than a century, until only one was left. She died September 1st, 1914. Her body found in her aviary at 1pm. And the most numerous bird in the world was gone from the skies.

The sadness of the story captivated me. But I felt a certain amount of embarrassment about falling in love with…. well, let us be frank, a pigeon. It is not a tiger or a woolly mammoth. It is no giant tortoise found by Charles Darwin or the giant extinct moas of New Zealand, the bones of which tower over a man. To most people, especially young people, there is not much to be cared for in any form of pigeon. And my love would lay quiet…. As over the next many years I would scoop up any book on extinct birds and animals that had any snippet with passenger pigeons. To those around me it looked like the topic of my love was extinct birds, but in truth it was just one extinct bird that mattered to me.

Suppressing the singular love would nurture something that has become much better for me – a focus on a phenomenon rather than one animal: extinction. Why do animals go extinct? Why do some go extinct when others do not? What are natural extinction rates, or background extinction rate, in contrast to mass extinction rates? And I become quite zealous in the discrepancy between extinctions caused by human expansion into the earth’s global ecosystems.

This zealous idealism in the “natural” world lead me to extra science courses in secondary school, driving to the early sections before school was officially in session for four years. Up early to learn science, and awake quite late to do science: robotics club, Science Olympiad, science fairs…. and more. All of that wasn’t enough.

I started my years at Montana State University with a crazy idea of graduating early. I completed my four year program many genetics courses and paleontology courses later through six terms of double time work, to graduate not only one year early, but with highest honors and a transcript to reflect a specialty in extinct life and the DNA that drives its form and evolution. The whole time I went on and on about ideas of resurrecting extinct species and working with extinction dynamics at an ecological level to my mentors. It changed from one species to another, once again misguiding even my closest academic influences away from my secret and idle love of passenger pigeons.

At age 21 I would stop repressing. Pushed to the edge of my stresses I found myself working paleontology nowhere near the world of research I’d hoped to be steeped in. It seems graduating early left me a little inexperienced for preparing for life’s next step. After meeting Jim Sartor I finally was inspired to go after what I wanted in life. Rather than buy another book with a page or two on passenger pigeons, I purchased a first edition of A.W. Schorger’s Passenger Pigeon: It’s natural history and extinction. An entire book on the bird in the photo seared into my brain! I loved pigeons. Why hide it? It was a beautiful thing to have waited until my education was so far advanced to learn about my true passion, as I could truly devour the material with full understanding and fuel my burgeoning and changing adult life.

I pursued more passenger pigeon books, and pigeon books in general. I made it my goal to be the man that would study passenger pigeons and become an expert on the bird. Most ardently I desired to know exactly how a species so numerous collapses under the pressure of a changing world. I contacted researcher after researcher as I constructed a full research proposal to submit to the National Science Foundation. I scoured the resources to make the proposal as comprehensive as I could. I analyzed the work of Paul Hahn to examine the data set of passenger pigeons I could actually work with, and whether or not the research questions at hand could be answered with the material left by the carnage of the industrial age. Relics in museums. This was fast becoming my life and love. Paul Hahn’s work came to my hands with the help of my best friend Ian’s mother, Debbie Roderer. I photographed each page under a pane of glass in the living room of Ian’s and my apartment, and printed each one out at the MSU library.

Much to my dismay I learned that the NSF grant that an aspiring graduate student was eligible for could only be 3 pages. What I had to say at that time was 13 pages before my cited resources. The original document is stored on a hard drive plugged into my computer I type on now. My severely diluted and condensed version of my grant proposal was rejected.

I’ve never been one to have a back up plan, or to reasonably abandon things. I toted the idea to several institutions and it was Dr. Hendrik Poinar of McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario who gave me a chance, but it would involve leaving my family far behind, and even my country. Canada is not exactly so exotic to the United States, but to anyone out there I challenge to uproot yourselves and change legal systems in the pursuit of an idea, and not even a solid job.

After a year of getting life “back on track” I would learn that I was too late to be the first at passenger pigeon research. The next year and half two papers would be published by two different labs studying passenger pigeon DNA. Because I thought it would be difficult to get passenger pigeon samples, I shifted work to a new species, and tried as hard as I could to figure out how to get my hand into passenger pigeon research.

I sent sample requests around the world for tissue to work with, hoping I could “sneak” it in amongst my current work until I got money for the expensive pieces of the process. I reworked the angle of the project and delved into harder to find records: the archaeological specimens of the bird. Then, in February 2011, I went to Chicago’s Field Museum to sample mastodon fossils for my master’s thesis project, and while I was there I asked to visit the ornithology collection. Much to my surprise Dave Willard, the former and currently “standing” curator of birds at the museum, had seen my proposal for tissue many weeks earlier, and in that moment obliged to cut tiny spots of flesh from the feet of three passenger pigeon males shot at Troy, New York, one-hundred and fifty-two years ago. It was my first chance to ever hold the bird I love, and to see them so closely in hand was a culminating moment. One that sadly I did not feel as intensely then as I do now looking back at the photographs of a smiling 24 year old holding FMNH 47396.

I now finally had specimens, but was still falling behind in the pursuit of researching this bird. I did nothing with the samples for 9 months. There came a day when I realized it was now or never, and I extracted the DNA and prepared it for sequencing in the matter of 4 very laborious days of work. Now I needed the money to obtain the precious DNA code locked in what was now a tiny tube of clear liquid…. almost a ghost of the once living pigeon that flew over the trees of New York.

What is this tube? It is 12 years of my life, and ten years of pursuit, and now 4 years of personal work. This tube is a looking glass to funerals of friends and family, and thousands of miles between my start and my end. It is science fair projects and University textbooks. It is a library of antique books and out of print academic literature.

This tube was made by the hands that held a dying pigeon, as I failed to save its life from infection and broken bones. This tube is in the hands that raised a mourning dove from chick to disposition and gentle young fledgling that made many people smile perching on a finger of amazed glance. This tube is so much of my life. And my life has gone much farther than the small dreams that aspired this clear liquid.

The same man that gave me strength to come out of the “pigeon” closet would make today possible. Jim Sartor provided the funding for sequencing work with this tube. My father, mother, sister, brother-in-law, Aunt, Grandmother and grandfather, and good friend Sarahi have made it possible to complete the work and also feed myself through the journey! Without these people, today could not have happened.

You see, today this tube is no longer all those years and struggles and the obstacles in the way. Today it is the hope and promise of all it can become. It teeters now on the verge of giving the world a look into the genetic history of an extinct species. It is poised to start the career I now want more than ever before, and see more clearly, and with a stoic pragmatism rather than shallow zealous nature.

Today I handed this little tube to a man named Dax, who will feed it into a machine that is capable of sequencing every little bit of DNA in that tube. Whole mitochondrial genomes can be expected, and there is no telling how much more. Today I no longer pursue a dream, but live in the midst of it. I could not in a mere paper encompass what my life has been to be summed up in this moment of uncertainty that stills my heart and peaks my senses.

Today is a pivotal day for my entire life. In no way though, is it somehow the end of some lofty quest. Today is the beginning of even greater ideas taking shape. And more to my surprise this unexpected route to this day has become filled with greater chances to live my passions to the fullest, as I begin work for Project Passenger Pigeon and slowly incorporate into a consortium of collaborators of scientists and artists to bring what I see inside this little tube, much more than strings of DNA, to the light of an entire generation. To this world that no longer is darkened by flocks of blue meteors.

With yet more family help and a keen eye I also have analyzed largely unknown collections of passenger pigeon bones, right in my own backyard so to speak. My grandmother, knowing how an obsession can drive the mind and soul, called me from Fort Union National Historic Site immediately after seeing bones labeled “passenger pigeon”. And I am in the process of beginning another project to positively identify these bones with gene sequencing, that will be made possible with this little tube of clear liquid I parted with today.

Life has become phone calls and emails with all of the most amazing people. My life is much more than a little tube of passenger pigeon DNA, but symbolically it is in the eye of the beholder. And today I beheld my life.

Today a little tube of clear liquid is all of me. I am overwhelmed to be culminated to such a condensed and simplified object. Tomorrow, though, is what will define me. For a moment, I breathe without definition. It is a moment I will not forget.

Ben Novak is a graduate student in paleogenetics at McMasters
University in Hamilton, Ontario, as well as a musician and painter.

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