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a feathered river across the sky

12 february 2014

In one of those coincidences that seem to track my literary wanderings, our house is besieged by pigeons as I write this review. Somebody threw out birdseed for the tame squirrels, and the main beneficiaries are hundreds of non-tame doves. They're spending their time whirring and pecking quietly enough, but every half-hour or so the whole flock rises as one with a terrific downward whoomp of air pressure that distantly mimics the shotgun blasts that drove their distant cousins to extinction. If a couple of hundred pigeons can make themselves so palpable a presence in your day, think what a couple of billion used to do.

The passenger pigeon's was an extinction unfathomable to those who brought it about: how could billions of birds, one of the dominant life forms across an entire continent, all perish within a couple of decades?

As Joel Greenberg notes in his marvelous Feathered River across the Sky (following biologist David Blockstein), there are four big ways in which a species can go extinct: "habitat loss, direct take, pollution … and introduced species" (202). The last two are so minor as to be irrelevant in the case of the passenger pigeon, though there's a faint chance that some introduced toxin or disease might have been a contributing factor. Habitat loss was also a minor factor, as the great forests of the Northeast were cleared for farming. But great swaths of those forests remained, and would regrow. "Direct take" – i.e., slaughter – was the overwhelming cause of the extinction. Various ecological coincidences threw Ectopistes migratorius and Homo sapiens into competition, and made the featherless bipeds not just the predators, but the determined exterminators, of the feathered.

Humans will shoot, for fun or food, any pigeon, of course, from the introduced common rock dove (the city pigeon) to native mourning and white-winged doves. The thing is, you can only shoot so many of these birds at once. Passenger pigeons' signature flocking made them uniquely successful in the absence of firearms, and uniquely vulnerable once firearms arrived.

Indians had been netting the colorful birds for millennia. It's a cliché that Native Americans are good stewards of sustainable resources, and white people pillaging destroyers, but like many clichés it's built on a grain of truth. Greenberg cites evidence that Sioux customs made the taking of nesting passenger pigeons taboo. Pre-industrial whites, though, didn't make much headway on exterminating the passenger pigeon, either. The logistics necessary to kill and dispose of millions of birds at a time had to wait on the development of the railroad and the telegraph.

Once those were in place, however, the feathers flew. Greenberg describes the feeding frenzy that huge concentrations of passenger pigeons evoked in 19th-century North Americans. Big cities provided a market for pie pigeons, and opportunistic rural hunters found in the huge flocks a literal windfall profit. High-tech transportation and communication networks allowed news of roosting or nesting sites to circulate rapidly, and the product to circulate back to market just as rapidly. When pigeons were at their most plentiful, they might bring their shooters literally a dime a dozen (82, 123). Waste was appalling. Most of the slaughter took place before refrigerated rail cars were in common use, so birds would be crammed together on ice, or just crammed together in barrels, it being immaterial that a tiny percentage would ever reach dinner tables.

Passenger pigeons also made ideal targets for trapshooters. I had always thought that the term "clay pigeon" was imitative. And so it is, but because the original targets of sportsmen were live passenger pigeons propelled out of traps. To attract the game for this sport, trappers depended on energetic decoys tied to stools: the original stool pigeons. Men could become quite fond of their most successful stoolies. There is no telling how fond the stoolies became of them.

The ecology of the passenger pigeon, says Greenberg, meant that a high percentage of all the members of the species congregated into just a few flocks – in their latter days, after the Civil War, often into merely one. Neither believing nor caring that the hunt could kill off all the passenger pigeons in the world, hunters converged on reports of mass nestings. The huge flocks attracted destruction wherever they flew. As if overnight, the population crashed and ceased to exist.

Greenberg ends his book with an eloquent argument for conservation. We often hear of the need to balance conservation with "jobs." More loggers, fewer owls. But being a pigeon hunter was not really an occupation. It was an ephemeral grab at a peripatetic resource. (Technically a "vagile" resource; I had to look that word up.) Pigeon takers grabbed a few bucks and cared not at all whether their harvest was sustainable. The best analogue in the 21st century are ocean fisheries that take animals even less discriminately than pigeon shoots, on even greater scales.

Or I should say that Greenberg finishes his book with an appendix called "Passenger Pigeon Miscellany." (I had to look up "miscellany" too, because I didn't know how to pronounce it. Stress the first syllable if you're American, the second if you're British. If you're Australian, do whatever.)

Come to find from the Miscellany that there are at least three 20th-century novels about the passenger pigeon. One is by James Ralph Johnson, but two others I'd never even heard of are by authors who have intrigued me: The Noise of Their Wings by MacKinlay Kantor (what a prolific and eclectic writer), and Silent Sky by Allan W. Eckert. So many books …

Greenberg, Joel. A Feathered River across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. QL 696 .C6G74

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