Orange Band was a Dusky Seaside Sparrow, a small and somewhat drab bird that lived in the Florida wetlands. He was named for the orange identification band on his leg, and he lived to be very old for a sparrow - he was at least eight years (the amount of time he had been in captivity) and possibly as old as twelve. Either way, an ancient age for a sparrow. Perhaps Orange Band knew, somewhere deep within him, that he carried the weight of his entire species, and that his death would sound the knell of extinction. In 1987, Orange Band died, and with him died the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. He was the last of his kind, and the Dusky Seaside Sparrow is no more.
In Robert James Waller's book of essays, "Old Songs in a New Cafe", he writes a thoughtful and heart-felt essay about Orange Band, made even more poignant now by the fact that Orange Band was still alive when he wrote it. I am ashamed to admit that I don't remember the essay that well, only that it moved me, but part of it that I remember is Waller wondering what it would be like to be Orange Band. Not to be a sparrow, necessarily, but to be the last of your species, and to know that the light of the whole history of your species' time on earth would go out with you.
We all worry about the extinction of species in the abstract. But for a moment, let's imagine the extinction of man. Not in a Will Smith "I Am Legend" kind of way or in a "nuclear holocaust kills everyone" kind of way, but in the way that most species go extinct: quietly, with little or no fanfare, with no one to witness the final death. A quiet, unnoticed, everyday vanishing.
Imagine yourself, perhaps sitting in a field, your back up against a warm brick wall, or maybe you are under a shady tree. The world is going along without you, there are still birds and fish and trees, there is just no place for you left in that world. There is no place for you to live, no place that welcomes you, no place that you can call home. You haven't seen another of your kind since childhood, maybe never. You don't know what happened, or when, or how it came to be that the earth no longer has a place for you. All you know is that you're tired, and it's time to put down your burden.
Of course, Orange Band was not thinking these thoughts, because he was a sparrow. And the last Golden Toad, the last Pyrenean Ibex, the last Hawaiian Crow, the last Baiji Dolphin, the last Red Colobus Monkey (all extinct within the past ten years) were not thinking those thoughts either. But since they couldn't, maybe we humans owe it to them to think those thoughts for them.
Here is one last thing to think about: The Dusky Seaside Sparrow did not go extinct due to being hunted, the cause of so many extinctions. No one wanted his feathers, no one wanted to eat him, no one particularly even wanted him out of the way. The species went extinct due to habitat destruction, the single largest cause of extinctions today. And in a horrible irony - the habitat was destroyed to make way for the Kennedy Space Center. We humans killed off a bird in our quest to fly. We didn't know we were doing it, and by the time we realized it was too late.