Ben Novak, a biologist at UC Santa Cruz, is a huge fan of passenger pigeons. But it's not enough for him to gaze at the extinct birds in photographic images or museum mountings. He wants to bring them back to life.

Novak is one of about a dozen scientists worldwide specializing in the area of "de-extinction" -- the attempt to resurrect species that long ago met their demise. His efforts are featured in a fascinating new installment of "Quest," the award-winning science series produced by KQED and its public-media partners.

"Reawakening Extinct Species" examines new genetic technologies that are making it possible for scientists to attempt de-extinction, including efforts by George Church of the Harvard Medical School, who is trying to engineer a woolly mammoth, that huge, shaggy beast from the ice age.

It all sounds bizarre and exciting -- like something out of the pages of science fiction. But the episode also gives airtime to skeptics who wonder if turning back the clock is such a good idea.

For example, Jim Patton, a scientist at UC Berkeley, thinks such efforts should be focused on maintaining the endangered species we have now and preventing further extinction. Even Novak's boss, Beth Shapiro, wonders if the public would put up with the return of passenger pigeons, or consider them an absolute "nuisance."

The feathered creatures that fascinate Novak were once the most abundant birds in the world and traveled the skies in enormous flocks. Victims of hunters, they were extinct in the wild by the late 1800s. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. Novak is sequencing the passenger pigeon's DNA from tiny bits of skin on museum specimens.

"Quest," which reached a milestone with the airing of its 100th episode earlier this month, is the first science production unit to give documentary treatment to de-extinction, a topic just starting to gain media attention. Much of the episode was shot at the Oakland Museum of California and the California Academy of Sciences.

Follow Chuck Barney at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.

'quest'

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: KQED (Channel 9)