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Lessons from the Passenger Pigeon



Rob Hardy


On 1 September 2014 there will be a centennial of a sad event. One hundred years ago, the very last passenger pigeon died. We have wiped out plenty of other species, but we know for sure the very date that this one left forever, and we also know just how much we lost because of the huge numbers and economic importance the birds once had. It has been many decades since a book was devoted to passenger pigeons and their fate, and this one seems as if it will be definitive: A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury) by natural historian Joel Greenberg. For all the sadness of its subject (and all the reflections it must bring about what humans are doing to other species all around the world), this is a fascinating collection of passenger pigeon lore for those of us who will never see the enormous flocks of the birds, or (given what people do) get to taste one. 




It is astonishing to read about the huge numbers of these birds; there are some tall tales about their populations, but even the verified reports will strain a reader's credulity, as we simply do not know anything comparable now. John James Audubon in 1813 recorded a flight along the Ohio River that blotted out the sun and took three days to pass. His associate and fellow bird observer Alexander Wilson was on the river, too, and paddled ashore to a farmhouse to buy some milk. "I was suddenly struck with astonishment at a loud rushing roar, succeeded by instant darkness, which, on the first moment, I took for a tornado, about to overwhelm the house and everything around in destruction." But those he was with had seen this before: "It's only the pigeons," they said. Wilson calculated that one huge flight alone consisted of 2,230,272,000 birds. There were more passenger pigeons in America, and possibly the world, than any other bird species. When they eventually set down, woe to the forest they picked; tree limbs and entire trees would be snapped off, and lumbermen did not appreciate it. Perhaps no one challenged Wilson's or Audubon's stories, but others knew not to try to report about the pigeons because they would not be believed; not Captain Davy, "who was in Philadelphia in the mid-1700s when a huge flight of pigeons took hours to cross over the city. At some point thereafter he went to Ireland and talked of what he had seen. His listeners were so incredulous they called him a 'whopping liar' and referred to him ever after as 'Captain Pigeon.'" 




The birds (unlike the rock pigeons that were brought here by Europeans) were native to North America, and had evolved to rove over the billions of acres looking for nut-bearing trees, like oaks. The birds were tasty, and the indigenous people knew it and appreciated the meals on the wing that were easy to catch, as did the earliest settlers. There were diners in the nineteenth century who thought that the flesh had little culinary merit ("very indifferent eating, even if well and properly cooked"), but it may be that their feelings were the product of the ubiquity of the birds. Greenberg even offers samples of what the cookbooks advised to do with the birds ("to make a pot pie of them, line the bake-kettle with a good pie crust; lay out your birds, with a little butter on the breast of each..."), but this time there is no chance of putting any birds at risk for the bake-kettle. They were served at Delmonico's, and at a huge celebratory dinner in honor of the visiting author Charles Dickens, who would have sampled three versions: "Stewed Pigeons with Peas, Stewed Pigeons with Mushrooms, and Pigeon Patties with Truffles." 




That the birds were tasty was one part of their downfall; the other was that they were just so available. Of course shooting them was one way of getting dinner. Even in an era of inefficient firearms, one shot into a flock of passenger pigeons could bring down a dozen birds. Shooters might compete to see how many pigeons they could bring down, but it was "rather slaughter than sport," according to one observer. When the flocks came, they didn't restrict themselves to staying in the country, but flew through the cities, and one ordinance from Quebec City in 1727 banned shooting within the city because "whenever there is a flight of pigeons and because of the eagerness to have them without the trouble of going out and going to those places where hunting is permitted, everyone takes the liberty of shooting thoughtlessly from his windows, the threshold of his door, the middle of the streets, from their yards and gardens... without thinking not only of the danger in which they place the passerby, old people and children who cannot take shelter sufficiently quickly..." If you didn't have a gun, a stick would do, batted through the flying flock. This was the way Mark Twain recalled they did it in Hannibal. You could throw things at them: "While harvesting their potatoes, farmers took advantage of nearby birds by flinging tubers at them. It is good to read that they lost more potatoes than they gained pigeons. But to have most of a stew fall from the sky in one lump must have been convenient." Firing a cannon into a flock would do the job. You could really bring down lots of pigeons with nets, and nets set on traps. It would be far more than the netter could use himself, and there was a trade of barrelled and preserved birds. The technologies of the times made such harvesting efficient. No one could predict where the huge flocks were going to go, but the telegraph enabled catchers to learn where the birds were, and the trains enabled them to get there, and to ship out the catch. A flock might turn a region into a boomtown for a while, complete with a temporary industry of "pluckers, shuckers, pickers, and packers; clerks to keep track; and there is even one mention in a secondary source of 'trollops.'" 




That the huge flocks could have blotted out the sun and fifty years later there should be one lone passenger pigeon in a zoo seemed to some too big a change for hunters and trappers to have caused. Some said the drops in numbers were due to some sort of illness of the birds, but there is no evidence of this. People simply killed them off, and among the last parts of the book are accounts of the final times passenger pigeons were seen in particular states as the numbers dwindled and the flocks no longer massed. There were a few captive flocks, but they did not prosper. Martha was from one of these, and spent her last years in the Cincinnati zoo; there was a thousand-dollar reward for anyone who could bring in a mate for her, but there were no passenger pigeons in the wild. "It is easy," writes Greenberg, "to become anthropomorphic about Martha's situation as the idea of impending aloneness so absolute is heartrending, especially in light of what had been such a short time before." Greenberg has written the history of the bird, and also an elegy for it. He has wonderful stories and quotations from the time of the huge flocks, and it is clear that we are the poorer for being unable to see the birds in their glory. The book comes at time to use the centennial of Martha's death as a teaching moment. Greenberg reminds us that while the hunters took their harvests, there were a few voices raised at the time to say that the slaughter would wipe the bird out, but few paid attention to the warnings at the time when something might have been done. Passenger pigeons are gone forever, and some contemporary experts are warning about this species or that one that is now going the same way. We listen, or we do not; we act, or we do not. 




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