When John J. Audubon watched a migrating flock of passenger pigeons fly overhead in 1813, he wrote that the sky was "black with birds" for three days. He could not have imagined that just over a century later, the bird would be extinct.

The last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of that ignominious day. Spurred by that anniversary, several Longwood University students, led by Dr. Sujan Henkanaththegedara, assistant professor of biology, will present "Project Ex" to discuss the untimely extinction of passenger pigeon and the contemporary extinction crisis.

Conservation Biology students will lead a panel discussion on Oct. 21 at 6:30 p.m. in room G12 of Chichester Hall on the various aspects of extinctions and how we can minimize our impact. Six students will share their thoughts on species extinctions and endangerment—both plant and animal—and steps that humans can take to change that course.

Several animals native to Virginia are faced with the threat of extinction. Among them are the Red-cockaded woodpecker, and many species of crawfish, salamanders and mussels. Plants face many of the same risks. The beautiful yellow Virginia sneezeweed, a flower found only in the Blue Ridge mountains and Shenandoah Valley, is quite rare and is included on endangered species lists because of overdevelopment, logging and other habitat-destroying practices.

"Many times we look at extinction as an abstract concept," said Henkanaththegedara. "We hope that by linking this discussion and activity with the famous and recent extinction of a common bird, we can raise awareness of the threat to other species here in our own backyards. These species don’t have to disappear—we can take action to save them."

Immediately following the panel discussion, nine student projects will be featured in a poster presentation and origami passenger pigeon activity will take place in the first-floor lobby of Chichester Hall. The origami pigeons are part of an initiative by national environmental organization The Lost Birds Project. Their program Fold the Flock commemorates the centennial anniversary of the last passenger pigeon. To date, nearly a million pigeons have been folded.

[Illustration of passenger pigeon courtesy of Shutterstock]

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