extinct birds

21 Extinct Birds & Their Stories

In 2021, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was taking 23 species off the protection provided by the Endangered Species Act. This wasn't because they were out of danger but because they had not been seen in so long. It was more probable they had become extinct. There are over 150 extinct birds, some of them only dying out early in the 20th century.

In this article, we look at some amazing birds forever lost to humans and learn what drove them to extinction.

Extinct Birds Of The World 

Over time, many bird species have died out for several reasons. Many of these reasons stem from human activities: habitat loss, agriculture, construction, predation by introduced species, competition for food resources, and unsustainable hunting. 

Diseases like avian malaria, avian influenza, fowlpox, natural disasters, and changes in the climate can also trigger species extinction.

There are probably extinct bird species we will never know existed because no one kept records of their existence. We only know about some of these extinct birds thanks to the works of naturalist explorers like John James Audubon.

1. Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius)

passenger pigeon
Photo by James St. John on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

Passenger pigeons had a total bird population estimated at 3 billion. They could have easily been the most populous wild bird species. Passenger pigeons migrate in flocks that block out the sun for days.

By 1900, no passenger pigeon was left alive in the wild1. The last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo at the turn of the 20th century.

As Europeans migrated to North America, they hunted the passenger pigeon for food. They kill millions of birds every year. To make matters worse, settlers cut down the great U.S. eastern forest, effectively rendering the passenger pigeon homeless.

2. Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis)

caraloni parakeet
Photo by James St. John on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Carolina parakeet was North America's only native parrot species. Carolina parakeets were quite abundant in their home range3, but they died off in large numbers in the mid-19th century. They became extinct entirely due to persecution. 

Early European settlers cut down forests, leading to habitat loss for the Carolina parakeet. The birds adapted to human encroachment, but humans did not reciprocate. 

Farmers saw them as pests and killed hundreds at a time. That was easy because when one Carolina parakeet was killed, rather than flee, the other birds would cluster around it and mourn. When plumes became a fashion sensation, people hunted the Carolina parakeet even more.

3. Kangaroo Island Emu (Dromaius baudinianus)

The Kangaroo Island emu, or the dwarf emu, is an extinct emu subspecies. The bird was native to the kangaroo Island in South Australia. It was a non-migrant bird, so its population was confined to the island.

In 1803, Nicolas Baudin documented the Kangaroo Island emu and returned living specimens to France. Less than 30 years after that, the Kangaroo Island emu became extinct. 

Settlers from Europe began setting bushfires to clear land for pasture. They burned down the bird's home. The settlers and seal hunters on the island also hunted the birds for food. By 1827, the last Kangaroo Island emu was recorded.

4. Canarian Oystercatcher (Haematopus meadewaldoi)

 Canarian Oystercatcher
Artwork by Henrik Gronvold (1858–1940).

The Canarian oystercatcher was endemic to the Eastern Canary Islands. The birds were roughly the size of crows and had all-black plumage and long red-orange beaks. 

The Canarian oystercatcher was considered extinct by the 1940s4. The exact reason for the disappearance of the Canarian oystercatchers is unknown. One speculation is that humans began to compete with the bird for the shellfish it fed on. And so the birds starved to death as their food source became depleted. 

Another speculation was that humans introduced cats, rats, and diseases that impacted their population. It was also possible that humans hunted the birds.

5. Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius)

Labrador duck
Photo by James St. John on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

This extinct bird was native to the North American east coast. The Labrador duck could dive and swim quite well. The last recorded sighting of the bird was in 1875.

The exact reason why the Labrador duck population died out is still being determined. Some sources say people hunted them for food or plumage. But their meat didn't taste good and would rot quickly. Also, the Labrador duck did not have a lovely plumage.

Another speculation was that the Labrador duck starved after humans depleted a specific mollusk, their main diet. One more possibility was that their eggs were extensively hunted.

6. Marianne White-eye (Zosterops semiflavus)

We don't know much about the Marianne White-eye bird. It disappeared before it could be studied extensively. We do know that the bird was endemic to Marianne Island in the Seychelles. It could have also occurred in Mahé, La Digue, Praslin, and Silhouette Island.

The Marianne White-eye was also known as Seychelles yellow White-eye or Seychelles chestnut-sided White-eye.

This bird species went into extinction between 1870 and 1900. A 1940 expedition to find the bird was unsuccessful. The cause of its disappearance is speculative. Some sources mention invasive species, while others blame coconut plantations. In both cases, fingers point to humans.

7. Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)

Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Photo by James St. John on Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Ivory-billed woodpecker was the largest in northern Mexico. It was also the third-largest woodpecker in the world. The bird lived in the old-growth forests of Cuba and the southeastern U.S.

The foremost driver of the Ivory-billed woodpecker's extinction was habitat loss. The destruction began from the 1800s through the 1900s World Wars. The last confirmed sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker was in 1987.

The scientific community is divided on whether the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct or just critically endangered. It was thought to have been rediscovered in Arkansas in 2004, but that remains disputed.

8. Saint Helena Dove (Dysmoropelia dekarchiskos)

The Saint Helena dove was a flightless bird endemic to Saint Helena Island. It was the only member of its genus. The bird went extinct soon after humans began living on the island. 

We don't know so much about the Saint Helena dove because it went extinct2 in the ‘pre-taxonomic’ period (approximately 1500–1800 CE). The exact reason for its extinction is also unknown.

The remote Island of Saint Helena was "discovered" by Portuguese explorers in 1502. It became a British territory in 1659. Some sources say the dove was extinct before settlers arrived.

Other accounts suggest that settlers hunted the dove for food. They also introduced species like rats, pigs, and goats that compete with native species for food or introduce diseases.

9. Bachman’s Warbler (Vermivora bachmanii)

The Bachman's warbler was one of the rarest songbirds native to the United States. The migrant bird would travel to Cuba for winter and breed in the southeastern U.S. in summer.

The last confirmed sighting of the Bachman's warbler was in 1988. There were many unconfirmed rumors of sightings, so the bird was not officially declared extinct until 2021 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Habitat destruction is one reason why the Bachman’s warbler is extinct. Both its breeding and wintering grounds were cleared for Agricultural uses. Another possible cause of extinction was a series of hurricanes that hit Cuba in the 1930s. 

10. Bishop’s Oo (Moho bishopi)

Bishop's Oo
Photo by Wmpearl on Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Bishop's Oo or Molokai Oo was a honeyeater bird native to the forests of the Hawaiian Islands. This pretty bird had black plumage with bright yellow patches around the ear, under the tail, and its sides.

The Bishop's Oo has not been seen since 1904. There were a few unconfirmed sightings, but intense searches have yielded no results. Habitat loss and degradation and introduced predators and diseases all played a part in its extinction. 

Settlers cut down forests for agricultural purposes. They also introduced livestock and pests that went feral, becoming competitors and predators to the birds. 

11. Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

The great auk is a flightless bird native to the North Atlantic. The population of the great auk once exceeded a million, but the last sighting of the bird was in 1852. Human predation is why the great auk no longer exists.

In the early 19th Century, fishing parties excessively hunted great auks for food and bait. Their fat and feathers also fetched some money. Great auk feathers were highly desirable for making pillows.

As the bird became rarer, the great auk became a valued collectible. Wealthy European patrons paid handsome prices for specimens of great auks and their eggs. Unfortunately, museums at that time were more interested in displaying dead, great auk specimens rather than preserving living ones. 

12. Pink-headed Duck (Rhodonessa caryophyllacea)

 Pink-headed Duck
Photo by Geni on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

Pink-headed ducks had mostly dark plumage with soft pink feathers on their heads and necks. They lived in the wet grasslands surrounding the Ganges in India and Bangladesh. They also inhabited the swamps of Myanmar.

There has been no reliable sighting of the Pink-headed duck since 1949. Typical of modern extinction events, humans cleared the grassland home of the ducks for agriculture. The birds were also hunted. Some pink-headed ducks were kept in captivity in India and England, but they did not breed.

A few pink-headed ducks may have survived by moving into the areas of Myanmar inaccessible to humans. So, the pink-headed duck is currently listed as a critically endangered species.

13. Mauritius Blue Pigeon (Alectroenas nitidissima)

Mauritius blue pigeon
Photo by Geni on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

The Mauritius blue pigeon was a bright, beautiful bird. It had white hackles on its head and shoulders, blue body feathers, and a red tail. The color scheme was similar to the Dutch flag, so the bird earned the name “pigeon Hollandais.

Before the pigeon disappeared, it was endemic to the Mascarene islands of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Once widespread, the Mauritius blue pigeon became extinct in the 1830s. 

The Mauritius blue pigeons succumbed to predation from introduced mammals. They also lost their habitat and food source to deforestation. One bird was taken captive to the Netherlands but died shortly after.

14. Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis)

 Eskimo Curlew
Photo by James St. John on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

There were once many millions of Eskimo Curlews on the shores of North America. The Eskimo Curlew could easily have been one of the most common shorebirds. However, it became rare towards the end of the 19th century.

The last confirmed sightings occurred in 19635. A migrating pair was seen on Galveston Island, Texas, and a hunter killed another pair in Barbados in September.

The Eskimo Curlew is likely extinct due to uncontrolled market hunting in the 1800s. Even after the practice was banned and the bird came under legal protection, its population declined. Its migratory habitats had been converted for agricultural use.

15. Norfolk Island Kaka (Nestor productus)

Norfolk Island Kaka
Photo by Hansmuller on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

Little is known about this extinct bird species. We do know that it was a forest bird endemic to Norfolk Island. It likely occurred in the nearby Philip Island, too. The bird had mostly brown feathers with generous splashes of orange and yellow. Other names it goes by are Norfolk Island Parrot, Philip Island Kaka, and Norfolk Island Nestor.

By the mid-1800s, the Norfolk Island Kaka was extinct. Settlers hunted the bird for food and cleared its habitat to make room for agricultural fields. Captive individuals lived a bit longer than their counterparts in the wild. 

16. New Zealand Quail (Coturnix novaezelandiae)

New Zealand Quail
Photo by Hansmuller on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

This extinct bird was the only quail native to New Zealand. It was once abundant in the South and North Islands, living in the open grasslands. 

New Zealand quails became extinct in 1875. Their population had been decreasing steadily over the years, and the arrival of European settlers exacerbated things.

The New Zealand quail was a food source for the Māori people. The hunting intensified when guns were introduced. Feral rats, cats, and dogs also hunted the quail. Settlers converted open grasslands to agricultural land. They also introduced game birds that spread avian diseases.

17. Dodo Bird (Raphus cucullatus)

Dodo Bird
Photo by BazzaDaRambler on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Cropped from original).

The Dodo bird is an extinct species popularly used as an example of human-caused extinction. All we have to remember is that these extinct birds are incomplete skeletons in museums around the world.

Dodo birds were native to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Portuguese sailors discovered the birds in 1507; by 1662, the last Dodos had been killed.

Dodos were bigger than turkeys and were unafraid of humans. Sailors and eventual settlers quickly set their sights on the bird as a food source. As more people settled, the birds lost their habitats. Invasive pigs and monkeys competed with the birds for food. They also ate their eggs.

18. Elephant Bird (Aepyornithidae)

Elephant birds are giant flightless birds. We know they exist from the many fossils found on the island of Madagascar. The largest species of the elephant bird was the Vorombe titan. It is the largest bird that ever lived. It was at least 10 feet tall and weighed about 1400 pounds.

Vegetation and climate change may have impacted the survival of the elephant birds. However, archeological findings show that humans hunted Elephant birds and consumed their eggs. The birds moved slowly and were probably easy targets.

Elephant birds lived in forested areas. Therefore, deforestation brought on by humans or other causes likely contributed to their extinction.

19. Po’ouli (Melamprosops phaeosoma)

Po’ouli
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Photographer Paul E. Baker) on Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

The Po’ouli was a Hawaiian honeycreeper endemic to Maui. It was discovered for the first time in 1973 by a group of researchers from the University of Hawaii. They named it Po’ouli, which translates to “black-faced” in Hawaiian.

Unfortunately, the formerly healthy population of the Po’ouli started to decline. In 1994, there were just about ten birds left. Despite laudable conservation attempts, the Po’ouli was last seen in 2004.

Ship rats preyed on Po’ouli and competed with them for their main diet: the ground snail. Their forest habitat also suffered extensive damage from feral pigs. Avian malaria was also implicated in the population decline of the Po’ouli.

20. North Island Piopio (Turnagra tanagra)

The North Island Piopio was one of the prolific songbirds of New Zealand's North Island. The bird was named for the sound of its call. It was closely related to the South Island Piopio, which has also died out.

A combination of habitat loss, hunting, and introduced animals caused the Piopio to go extinct. These birds were not afraid of humans and would come around uninvited. Occasionally, people killed and ate them. In 1902, the last recorded Piopio of the North Island was shot. Introduced ship rats and stoats were the main predators that exterminated the North Island piopio

21. Cuban Macaw (Ara tricolor)

Cuban Macaw
Photo by Hansmuller on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).

The Cuban Macaw, or Cuban Red Macaw, was a parrot native to West and Central Cuba. The beautiful bird was primarily red but had blue feathered wings and a yellow head.

The last report of these macaws was in the late 19th Century. They died out due to overhunting and habitat degradation. People hunted Cuban macaws to eat them or collect their colorful feathers. They captured young Cuban macaws to use or sell as pets.

Cuban macaws live in the forests, where they can find large tree holes to nest in. Cutting down trees meant the birds had no place to nest. The extinct birds also fed on hard palm fruits, soft fruits, shoots, and seeds. Deforestation also cuts off their food sources.

Conclusion

The life of one rare bird may not mean much to you, but remember that the ecosystem is a web of complex interdependence. If species keep on dying off, soon you'll be personally affected. So, do what you can to help prevent the extinction of wild birds and other species. 

You should speak against and refuse to participate in habitat destruction, illegal wildlife trading, and trophy hunting. You may also donate to conservation centers.

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1

Hung, C. M., Shaner, P. J. L., Zink, R. M., Liu, W., Chu, T. C., Huang, W., & Li, S. H. (2014). Drastic population fluctuations explain the rapid extinction of the passenger pigeon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America111(29), 10636–10641. 

2

Boehm, M. M. A., & Cronk, Q. (2021). Dark extinction: the problem of unknown historical extinctions. Biology Letters, 17(3).

3

BirdLife International. (2021). Conuropsis carolinensisThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T22685776A195444267. 

4

BirdLife International. (2021). Haematopus meadewaldoi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T22693621A205917399.  

5

BirdLife International. (2021). Numenius borealis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2021: e.T22693170A178901365. 

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