Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Feathered River Across The Sky

I just read, “A Feathered River Across The Sky -- -- The Passenger Pigeons Flight To Extinction”, by Joel Greenberg, a birder, author, naturalist and associate of the Chicago Field Museum who has turned a lifelong curiosity about the Passenger Pigeons into a book that will certainly rank among the definitive volumes about the wandering aviators that disappeared from the Earth before very much was even known about them.  

I have often wondered about the lost birds myself but have had no real knowledge of them, save an occasional reference in a history book or the bird’s dishonorable mention in an environmentalist rant; otherwise it has been very difficult to even imagine them.


We once lived in the Pigeon Valley of North Carolina, right under some of the highest peaks of the Appalachians; one day I was hitchhiking home from my disabled vehicle and a lady from the local historical society happened by and gave me a ride home and of course she told me all about the local history. 

She told me the valley and the river, as I had guessed, were named for the Passenger Pigeons that had once roosted there and that they had been so numerous and defenseless that all that was necessary to harvest tens of thousands of the hapless birds was to go into their roosting areas with long poles, knock them out of the trees and pick up the dead. The first settlers used the pigeons to fatten hogs, which they slaughtered, packed in barrels and shipped to the coast to sell and this is how the first white pioneers made their living in the Pigeon Valley of North Carolina. 

Even thought they had been the most numerous animals in North America at the time of the first contact, by my time they were long gone and that conversation with the historical society lady was the first time that I had an actual narrative and place to even imagine them. And years later, Mr. Greenberg’s account of what little was actually known about them has filled in a lot of blank spaces on that map.

A Perfect Storm

The Passenger Pigeon was a perfect biological storm; they were perfectly adapted to the world they lived in. Superb aviators, they were large, about one and half times the size of a dove, very handsome and colorful birds with slate blue uppers and throat & breast of rich copper glazed with purple.

As their name suggest, they were wanders ranging from Oklahoma to beyond the northern limits of the Great Lakes in search of food and places to roost and when they lit, they were like to turn the local ecosystems upside down due to their enormous numbers and appetites. There are numerous credible accounts, some from bonafide naturalist like Audubon and Bartram, of immense flocks that would block out the sun in their passing and take days to do so. 

They ate mostly mast but were opportunistic and would eat most anything that was available, including earthworms, snails, locust and ants. They were known to settle like a plague on farmer’s fields and obliterate them. When they roosted the mass of their enormous numbers would break tree limbs and the collapse would kill hundreds of their own and that along with their guano deforested vast stretches of woodlands. Their enormous numbers were their best adaptation; they were so numerous that killing all of them was all but inconceivable.

They were a subsistence crop for the Native Americans and the white pioneers and killing them in large numbers, when they roosted, was a community event and was considered a great sport and when the telegraphs came and the railroads brought in the market hunters, they became the economic lifeblood of many communities.


Passenger Pigeons and squabs, packed in barrels, and shipped to America’s growing urban centers became as common to nineteenth century city dwellers as chicken wings at the Piggly Wiggly are to us. Wherever the pigeons landed they were attacked for sport and profit by every local in the vicinity and by market hunters who were alerted by the telegraph and who shipped them out in barrels on the railroads. 

They were not only shot, but large numbers were caught in nets, lured in by decoy ‘stool-pigeons’ and large numbers of live birds were sent to ‘sportsmen’ clubs who slaughtered thousands in ‘trapshooting’ events (the predecessor of today’s clay pigeon were living Passenger Pigeons) and the numbers of creatures slaughtered in this manner is astounding -- -- Ten thousands birds being sent to their destruction in a single event was common and one event at a club in New York City took forty-thousand! 

As the slaughter continued, there were a few who started to worry about the possible expiration of the species and raised the alarm and there were some primordial game laws enacted, but they were too few and too late, so the casual slaughter continued. It went on and on, well into the 1890’s until the large pigeon roost just disappeared from the American landscape and even then few could believe that we had killed them all.  


Maybe this misconception persisted because Passenger Pigeons were still occasionally seen as individuals or in small groups and still, when they were seen, they were shot and collected as valuable and rare specimens to be sold to museums or collectors. 

The search for the pigeon’s elusive roost became a bit like the fruitless search for the legendary Prester John; rewards were offered, many false positives reported and many wild speculations vetted. It was said, they had gone to Labrador, to Mexico, to the Azores or they had flown out over the Atlantic and despairing of their torment, deliberately drowned themselves!

But they were never seen again in the wild and Martha, the captive descendant of stool-pigeons and the last living Passenger Pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914. 


Sad ending, but not quite so, there is a movement among bio-technologist and visionaries that aims to sequence the genes of surviving Passenger Pigeon specimens and use a closely related species, the Band Tailed Pigeon to incubate those genes and create a living Passenger Pigeon. Stewart Brand (creator of the Whole Earth Catalog) and his Long Now Foundation are among those who support the initiative known as Revive & Restore.  

This is absolutely achievable and many readers will almost certainly live to see a living Passenger Pigeon and perhaps even a Mammoth. Both are good choices, because of their closely related relatives that still live and because humanity perhaps owes them something as we had a hand in their extermination. 

A common argument against doing this is that their natural habitat no longer exists and in the case of a species that was so numerous that it ‘darkened the skies’ that is a real concern, at least if you intend for them to repopulate the wild. 

But this species adapted very well to captivity, which is one of the things that is so ironic about their expiration and I would like to see what stories those genes could tell expressed in living Passenger Pigeons. First thing I'd like to know is how did they come to populate our world in such unfathomable numbers?  


  1. I once heard a conservationist explain the way that our perceptions of biological diversity change over time. Biodiversity is like a pie that we take in and out of the fridge with each generation. Each generation carves off a slice--looses certain species as a cost of development and the way we alter the ecosystem--and puts the pie back in the fridge. The next generation takes the pie out of the fridge again, but their conception of what is possible, of what a rich and biodiverse ecosystem looks like, is altered consequently. They think they are dealing with the whole pie because it's the only pie they've ever known. Passenger pigeons may be the same idea: the are fascinating because we simply can't imagine a world in which they fully exist.

    Which forms a kind of argument for bringing them back, for seeing what you aptly call the stories that would be embodied in living pigeons. It's a very hopeful idea. On the other hand, I see the logic of those who argue that we don't have the landscape to support passenger pigeons in large numbers, and with all the stress that native species are already under, I do have to ask myself if bringing passenger pigeons back to the wild is a wise move. All told, when it comes to the funds that make research happen, I think I'd rather see the money spent on making the world more welcoming for the species we haven't yet managed to push into extinction.

  2. Well, I think they would soon find their equilibrium or not just as water finds its level or goes over the falls. More and more I am proponent of and less fearful of biotech; from what I have seen engineered organisms, and I would suppose, reconstructed organisms seem to follow the same laws of nature as they occur in the wild.

    I'm even stunned at the way engineered cyber organisms released into a modeled cyber world behave, compete and die in a manner that is remarkably similar to the 'natural world we live in.


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