The 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, once North America's most populous species, is this year. The last pigeon, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914 after being the only one of her kind for about three years. There may have been billions of passenger pigeons only 40 years earlier. Just how could this have happened? The Field Museum of Chicago's Joel Greenberg tells us the very sad story in A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction.
Passenger pigeon science is a bit iffy as the birds disappeared before academically-trained research scientists were available to study them. Greenberg has had to plow through all sorts of newspaper accounts, letters, journals, and other papers that were obviously filled with as much myth and misinformation as firm data. One of the most misleading statements often repeated by professional hunters was that the passenger pigeon nested up to four times in a breeding season and that a clutch usually included two eggs. They stated that there would never be a shortage of passenger pigeons. What Greenberg concludes from more reliable sources was that most pigeons bred once and raised one chick. Usually the flocks moved too often to new feeding grounds to have bred more than once.
According to Greenberg in A Feathered River Across the Sky, there never seems to have been much sympathy for passenger pigeons while they lived in great quantities. They could arrive in the millions and destroy farmers' crops and woodlots. Ironically, many hungry people celebrated when passenger pigeons arrived in their areas as they supplemented their family meals with pigeons. Once railroads crossed the country, professional hunting companies harvested and shipped millions of birds as cheap food for cities. In the 1870s and 1880s, every mass pigeon gathering was a slaughter with people netting birds for the live bird trade trying to keep from being shot by local and corporate hunters with guns. The population plummeted quickly.
21st century readers may be shocked by the behavior of their ancestors. Yet every thing they did was thought justified at their time. That should make us question current times, when we say that we need to exploit our resources for economic reasons and deny that they are limited.
I fear that A Feathered River Across the Sky will be passed over by many in our entertainment-crazy society, but Greenberg tells many good stories with lessons that should be headed. Look for it at your public, school, or college library.
Greenberg, Joel. A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction. Bloomsbury, 2014. 289p. ISBN 9781620405345.