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Book review: Joel Greenberg’s “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction”

Passenger Pigeon

In 1989 or 1990, when my daughter Katie was in kindergarten, my family took a trip to the Twin Cities and visited the Bell Museum of Natural History. I’d promised the kids that I’d get them their own copy of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America when they got their life list up to 100 species, and Katie, my goal-oriented, competitive child, was gung-ho about seeing every species she could. When we saw the museum’s Passenger Pigeon display, her eyes grew wide studying the splendid birds, so huge and colorful compared to the Mourning Doves she knew so well. She told me she couldn’t wait to add that one, with its rosy body and blue wings, to her life list.

When I gently told her that the Passenger Pigeon is extinct—that people had killed every one long ago—she broke down sobbing. I don’t know which emotion was stronger in her—sorrow that she’d never see a live Passenger Pigeon or impotent fury at the avarice and bloodlust of her own species, even though I didn’t get into specifics about the killing frenzies when gigantic flocks of Passenger Pigeons flew over eastern cities, many of which had to write ordinances prohibiting shooting pigeons within city limits because so many dead birds and so much shot was raining down on people below.

I knew exactly how Katie felt, because when I was about her age, my grandpa told me about Passenger Pigeons. He was born in 1896 and had never seen one, but he remembered the stories his father and grandfather told him about what was once the most abundant land bird in the entire world. He told me stories about the huge flocks that blackened the skies, how when they descended upon a forest their sheer weight broke heavy limbs of sturdy trees. By the time he was a little boy, the last wild pigeons had been killed. Just one remained alive, a female named Martha living in the Cincinnati Zoo. When she died in 1914, he read about it in the newspaper.

Grandpa and me

My grandpa’s warm cheek against mine was my only defense against the horror of realizing what bad things my own species was capable of. He told me that killing animals isn’t wrong—all the meat we eat comes from animals. What seemed wrong to him was killing more than anyone could possibly use, and finding it fun. I don’t think my grandpa thought hunting was wrong, though he never owned a gun and I think was unable to fathom killing anything for sport after his experiences in World War I. It was on his knee that I formed my moral code, which is probably why avarice—that lust to possess more than one could possibly use—seems to be a sin of the highest order.

By the time I was in college in the 1970s, wildlife managers were starting to claim that it wasn’t overhunting that doomed the Passenger Pigeon but rather the loss of eastern forests to agriculture and development. I’d read a lot of accounts of excessive hunting—even Audubon himself, who killed far more birds than sports hunters of today could possibly take, believed that pigeon hunting at the levels he was seeing was dooming the species. (Actually, I was wrong about this. Audubon wrote a dramatic account of a large pigeon shoot in his Birds of America, parts quoted here. But he apparently didn’t think even killing them in huge numbers could make a difference. Thanks to Rick Wright for catching this error!)

I tried to be scientific about it, knowing that many accounts of the hunting were anecdotal, and realizing just how important habitat is, but I couldn’t shake my strong emotional sense that overhunting was still the primary cause of the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction, and I couldn’t help but be skeptical of the people putting all the blame on habitat loss, because they were hunters themselves, and their work was funded in large part by hunters, so they’d naturally want to deflect public concerns about hunting as other species, such as sage grouse, bobwhites, and prairie chickens, declined ominously but were still being hunted. Hunting a species as its population plummets gives the lie to the idea that under modern management, hunters take only the “surplus population.”

Cover: Joel Greenberg's A Feathered River Across the Sky

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon on the planet. And we’re getting new information again focusing on the excessive, avaricious over-hunting of the species, along with an exhaustive treasure trove of authoritative information about the species and how habitat loss and other factors also contributed to its demise, thanks to an extremely important book published this month by Bloomsbury. The London office of this publishing house was the first to discover J.K. Rowling, publishing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone after a dozen publishers had rejected it. Now the New York office of this same publisher has released a natural history book that I’m hoping against hope will do just as stupendously.

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction was written by Joel Greenberg, a Chicago researcher associated with some of my absolute favorite institutions: the Field Museum of Natural History, Morton Arboretum, Brookfield Zoo, and Chicago Botanic Garden. His book is an in-depth look at one of the great ecological tragedies—perhaps the greatest ecological tragedy—in the history of mankind: the extinction of what was not very long ago the most abundant land bird in the world. A Feathered River is about the willful destruction, by humans, of a species that provided food for millions of people as well as most likely one of the major food sources for Peregrine Falcons.

Considering the tragic subject, Greenberg’s book is surprisingly fun to read, filled with fascinating historical accounts unearthed in his exhaustive research. His chapter titled “Pigeons as Provisions to Pigeons as Products” includes quotes from a debate in the Indianapolis Star between a Kentucky author who found Passenger Pigeon meat “as tough as whit leather, about as juicy as a pith of a dried corn stalk, as digestible as rawhide and almost as hard to masticate as rubber,” and two pigeon meat defenders, one who said you could say the same for beef or chicken if all you had tasted was an old bull and a four-year-old rooster, and another who claimed she “never ate a pigeon of any age that was not delicate and delicious.” Pigeons were stewed, served in pies, boiled and pan fried, “as you would squirrels.” When Charles Dickens was feted at New York’s City Hotel with such luminaries as Washington Irving, he was served stewed pigeon with mushrooms and peas, and pigeon patties with truffles. President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant were served pigeons at the famous Delmonico’s.

The book’s clear-eyed exploration of what we know and what ornithologists speculate about Passenger Pigeon natural history is utterly fascinating, and Greenberg carefully teases out the truth from fiction in various accounts of the species and its extinction. We learn about the people who took part in the unconscionably excessive slaughter, people who tried to slow it down, and people, including avid pigeon hunters, who became passionate conservationists because of it. Throughout, Greenberg writes in a simple, straightforward way as if channeling E. B. White, leavening the depressing with the fascinating.

This post-mortem on a species that has been extinct for a full century is far more than just an insightful but sad look back. Greenberg’s final chapter is titled “Extinction and Beyond,” where he discusses issues facing birds today, giving an overview of many of the issues I tackled in my 101 Ways to Help Birds. When I was in college on that first Earth Day in 1970, people of all ages seemed so certain we could effect real changes, and sure enough, within the next four years we’d passed the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, and even passed the law lowering the speed limit to 55 to save natural resources. But ever since, corporations and developers have been firmly committed to gutting each of these laws and limiting their enforcement, and more and more people have bought into the idea that there is too much regulation, leading to the situation today in West Virginia where thanks to lax regulation and enforcement, a chemical spill has contaminated the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people (to say nothing of fish and wildlife). I’ll never understand why it is that we consider the corporations that pollute to be “job creators” while those who would help clean up and prevent messes and protect our wildlife are not.

Greenberg, with that same roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work attitude so effective during the 70s, has been the leader in developing Project Passenger Pigeon to:

… mark this anniversary and promote the conservation of species and habitat, strengthen the relationship between people and nature, and foster the sustainable use of natural resources. The project aims to engage a broad audience through a documentary film, a new book on passenger pigeons, this website, social media, curricula, and a wide range of exhibits and programming for people of all ages.

So far, over 150 conservation and education organizations have become supporters. His wonderful book serves as a major kickoff for this superb effort.

I’ve never before wanted a third hand, but I wish I could sprout one just so I could give this book three thumbs up. It doesn’t just pack a punch—it packs a punch to the head, the heart, and the gut. Greenberg’s Feathered River across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

Playing the Listing Game

Mountain Chickadee

March 2, 1975, the day I saw my first Black-capped Chickadee, is also the day I started keeping a life list, in Michigan. Two weeks later, when Russ and I went to Illinois, I started a new state list. By the end of the year, I’d seen 120 species and was keeping four state lists. On January 1, 1976, I naturally started a new year list—by December 31, I was up to 225 species seen in 7 states and Ontario, and was addicted. Listing doesn’t keep me from enjoying each bird as it comes, but does help me remember sightings days, weeks, months, and years later. Now that I’m photographing birds, I get the same thrill when I find even the most common birds, and I still savor each one, watching what it’s doing and listening to its vocalizations, only now I swap out binoculars for my camera. My vision has been noticeably deteriorating in the past couple years, but thanks to my camera, what I don’t see clearly in the field I get to savor later. The photos also help jog my memory for my list keeping.

My first few years of birding, I was very organized with my birding data, but after having children, my listing became more haphazard even though I never stopped watching birds. In the late 90s, a computer program called AviSys started keeping track of my lists for me—at least after I entered the data. That took a lot of time, and I still have a lot of daily checklists from years past that I haven’t added, but going through old notebooks is a pleasurable activity, especially during ice storms when I can’t get outside anyway. Now I’m trying to get into the habit of entering my sightings as I go into a great program called eBird, which makes the data available to everyone in real time.

Camping in my Prius in Water Canyon

Doing a Big Year in 2013 was an entirely new thing for me, and data keeping has been complicated, especially regarding logistical matters. I spent 150 nights away from home, traveling almost 37,000 miles by car and van and over 13,000 miles by air, birding in a total of 28 states to see 604 species of wild birds, 593 which are countable by the American Birding Association’s rules. I’m not very competitive, but on January 2, I decided I might as well submit my total on the ABA Listing Central webpage. It was lucky I did it then—for a few days, my total was #1 in the Lower 48 category for the year, and #4 for all time!

Of course, I know darned well that plenty of other people have seen more species than that in a single year in the Lower 48. The three birders whose real-life Big Year in 1998 was immortalized in the book and movie The Big Year certainly saw well over 600 species in the Lower 48 as they tallied over 700 for North America, but they each posted their numbers only in the “ABA Area” competition (which includes the continental US and Canada), not bothering to separate out the species they saw in the Lower 48. And Neil Hayward, who broke the all-time Big Year record with 750 species in 2013, hadn’t posted yet when I submitted my numbers. So my standings were sort of meaningless and would definitely drop the moment Neil hit the website, but I couldn’t help but grab a screenshot proving that for one brief shining moment, I was Number One in this tiny competition. I don’t know why that felt so cool, but it did.

On January 6, Neil Hayward posted his numbers. Of the 750 species he saw in the US and Canada, an astonishing 690 were seen in the Lower 48—almost 100 more than I found. Birding is a sport of diminishing returns, so Neil had to work a lot harder to get his number so much higher. His 195 nights away from home dwarfed my 150, he flew an order of magnitude more miles than I did—almost 194,000!—and he drove 15,000 more miles than I did. Like me, he birded in 28 states, but he also covered 7 Canadian provinces.

I’d never aspired to do a Big Year before, and as wonderful and fun as it was, I’m not interested in doing it again. So many of my most wonderful experiences had to be cut short so I could head on to the next destination. As I go through my lists and photos now, I’ll be thinking of last year as a scouting adventure, hoping that Russ and I can head back to the coolest places to explore them together in more leisurely fashion. My Conservation Big Year was the grandest birding adventure I’ve ever had, and one of the unexpected bonuses is how it’s whetted my appetite for a lifetime of adventures to come. I hope on one of them I’ll bump into Neil Hayward so I can congratulate him on his hard-earned achievement. He really IS #1.

Laura's totals compared to Neil Hayward's for our 2013 Big Years.

Laura’s totals compared to Neil Hayward’s for our 2013 Big Years.