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A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction [Paperback]

Joel Greenberg

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Book Description

20 Nov 2014

When Europeans arrived in North America, 25 to 40 percent of the continent's birds were passenger pigeons, traveling in flocks so massive as to block out the sun for hours or even days. The downbeats of their wings would chill the air beneath and create a thundering roar that would drown out all other sound. John James Audubon, impressed by their speed and agility, said a lone passenger pigeon streaking through the forest "passes like a thought." How prophetic-for although a billion pigeons crossed the skies 80 miles from Toronto in May of 1860, little more than fifty years later passenger pigeons were extinct. The last of the species, Martha, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

As naturalist Joel Greenberg relates in gripping detail, the pigeons' propensity to nest, roost, and fly together in vast numbers made them vulnerable to unremitting market and recreational hunting. The spread of railroads and telegraph lines created national demand that allowed the birds to be pursued relentlessly. Passenger pigeons inspired awe in the likes of Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, and others, but no serious effort was made to protect the species until it was too late. Greenberg's beautifully written story of the passenger pigeon paints a vivid picture of the passenger pigeon's place in literature, art, and the hearts and minds of those who witnessed this epic bird, while providing a cautionary tale of what happens when species and natural resources are not harvested sustainably.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (20 Nov 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620405369
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620405369
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 21 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,455,719 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The first major work in sixty years about the most famous extinct species since the dodo . . . equal parts natural history, elegy, and environmental outcry . . . Answering even basic questions about the passenger pigeon requires a sort of forensic ornithology, which gives FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY an unexpected poignancy at the very points where it is most nature-nerdy. (New Yorker)

Joel Greenberg has done prodigious research into the literature of the passenger pigeon and lays much of it out in this book. For that effort, all who care about the living world owe him a debt of gratitude. (Wall Street Journal)

A brilliant, important, haunting and poignant book, A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY . . . will forever change the way in which you think of pigeons (all birds, really) and about the natural world. (Chicago Tribune)

In calm, measured prose, [A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY is] a story of unremitting, wanton, continental-scale destruction. (New York Review of Books)

Book Description

The epic story of why passenger pigeons became extinct and what that says about our current relationship with the natural world.

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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lessons from the Passenger Pigeon 7 Jan 2014
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wow - Very intense! 17 Feb 2014
By Jim C - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book was more than I bragained for and is a very emotional read. It starts out reviewing the passenger pigeon ecology, its amazing migrations and the movements of millions of passenger pigeons. I thought, what an amazing pigeon and I was thankful for buying and reading this book whch made this remarkable bird come alive again.

However, in the second part of the book, Joel Greenberg has collected and published the actual accounts of how the passenger pigeon was slaughtered from the writings of the people who participated. This section of the book almost reads like a catalog titled "How to kill passenger pigeons". In these chapters, the book becomes a very difficult read - and a terrifying almost repititous account of how Americans carelessly slaughtered this remarkable animal for food, money and sport into extinction.

I found the accounts of the pigeon's final nesting attempts in the last 10 years to be the most intense and poignent part of the book - you are shouting to yourself - "No, please stop the killings - these are the last birds" and even in these last years, the extent of the remaining pigeon population is astounding. Books like this are needed. Thanks for the author for writing it - it must have been a very difficult book emotionally to write.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A catalogue of tragic events. 3 Feb 2014
By Christopher C. Atkins - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book tells a tragic story for which we should all be sorry and also be ashamed of. We are about to do the same thing with the African elephant unless we can pull back from the brink.

This is a difficult read as the writing is not engaging. The book catalogues a long list of tragic events, so it is more like a dcumentary than a story. It is not the sort of book I will keep in my library to read again with pleasuer some day in the future.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good and long 2 Mar 2014
By Neil M Berg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The first part of the book, a description of the bird and the dynamics of it's interaction with the environment and other species, was very intriguing. The second half of the book is indepth descriptions of the myriad methods that we found to slaughter the birds. After fifty pages or so that got rather tedious. I did not finish the book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Naturalist's View of Extinction, 100 Years Later 27 Jan 2014
By ernest schusky - Published on Amazon.com
Greenberg brings his training as a biologist to an extrapolation of history that leaves us worried about all species in this era of uncertainity about climate change, pollution, and wide spread human belief in the superiority of mankind. He has found dozens of fascinating reports about the multitudes of passenger pigeons that filled the skies and the earth in the 1700s. Two examples suffice. One witness saw so many birds take refuge in an oak that the tree collapsed under their weight. Another saw multitudes drown when some birds landed on a shallow lake and others descended to join them. Some flocks of the birds must have numbered in the billions.

What struck me as a bonus to the account of the pigeon's demise was examination of the beginning relation between hunters and conservationists. Greenberg is sympatetic to hunting clubs which thrived on hunting passenger pigeons while becoming concerned with preserving the environment and the wildlife they depended upon. I found his account of Madison Grant to be one of the most enthraling. A member of the Boone and Crockett Club, Grant preached that all of nature could be considered a trophy--thus its preservation must be a top priority. Yet this amatuer naturalist was such an extreme racist that he received fan mail from Adolph Hitler.

In sum, Greenberg has used his knowledge and his research to bring together biology and history to give us an outstanding book.
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