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. 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. Not only were they tasty, but they were just so available. Shoot into the flock and bring down dozens, or wave a club through the mass, or throw rocks, or use nets or traps. 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.