Thursday, December 11, 2014

Books I'm Reading: The Passenger Pigeon

The word "extinct" came into my consciousness as a child obsessed with dinosaurs in the early 1960s, when we had far fewer dinosaurs to think about than a child does today. The word came shrouded in a pall of utterly final doom overlaid with something giggly because it sounded like "stink," and that was associated in my childish mind with defecation. Extinction seemed absolute and infinite, and the idea of infinity was mind-boggling and dreadful in a vague way I would have been hard-pressed to articulate. Extinction. Death forever. Irretrievable loss. No living examples. The giggly component only made the idea seem more horrible, in the way that a murderous clown is horrible. As an adult, the idea of extinction has become no more fathomable or less fascinating, even if education and reading have greatly multiplied the number of animals and plants I connect with the word "extinct."

I wonder what images first come to mind when the average person hears the word today? By "average person," I mean simply non-biologists--people who do not study extinction or extinct animals. Aside from dinosaurs, I imagine the Dodo and the Passenger Pigeon symbolize extinction for a large number of people. The dinosaurs loom large because they loomed so large--literally--and because the era they dominated was so long ago. The Dodo has become the icon of extinct bird species, probably because of its awkward, comical face coupled with the paradox of flightlessness in a bird; the vulnerability of flightless birds always fascinates. The Passenger Pigeon occupies a special place among extinct species, however, for a number of reasons, and Errol Fuller's book The Passenger Pigeon (Princeton University Press, 2015), published more or less on the 100th anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon's demise, is both an examination of that bird's special qualities and a memorial to its passing.

First among the reasons the passenger pigeon is special is the sheer number of them that once existed. The Passenger Pigeon is believed to have been the most numerous bird on the planet at one time--numbering in the billions, birds blotting out the sun as they moved in miles-long flocks in search of food. The descriptions of Passenger Pigeon flocks quoted in the book are in several cases familiar, but no less dramatic for that. Among these is the well-known description of an anonymous journalist that appeared in the May 20, 1871 issue of the Fond du Lac Commonwealth:

Imagine a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, accompanied by as many steamboats groaning off steam, with an equal number of...trains passing through covered bridges...and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar following the monstrous black cloud of pigeons as they passed in rapid flight...a few feet before our faces...nearly on a level with the muzzles of our guns.... [as quoted by Fuller in The Passenger Pigeon]

And it was these guns--the incessant, rapacious hunting of the birds--along with habitat destruction, that finally led to the Passenger Pigeon's doom. The decline was rapid. Only about 75 years separate the death of the last known bird from descriptions of what appear to have been stable populations (although we will never really know where the tipping point was). By the time people realized the bird was in serious decline, efforts to reverse the trend were far too little far too late.

The case of the Passenger Pigeon is special also because it's recent and well documented. Fuller's chapter headed "The Last Captives" is particularly moving. It's accompanied by rare photographs of the last known birds--not only the most famous among them--Martha, the last of her species, lost to the world on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. We know the exact date of extinction of only a handful of other species. If the human role in the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon may be excusable to some degree by appeal to a combination of ignorance of the dynamics of extinction and the difficulty there must have been just conceiving of the disappearance of such an abundant animal, the extinction stands as a marker along the road of progress of the collective human consciousness. Before that marker, it is tempting and consoling to make excuses. We knew no better. After the well-recorded event, we can no longer plead ignorance of the human role in species extinction. And, in defining that shift, the Passenger Pigeon is again special.

Fuller's book is not an exhaustive study of the bird's biology, although a short appendix by Julian Pender Hume briefly discusses the bird's anatomy. In his introduction, Fuller himself says "This work is not intended as a textbook or a detailed monograph covering every aspect of Passenger Pigeon research and every known piece of information about the species." He refers the reader to works by William Mershon (1907), Arlie Schorger (1955), and Joel Greenberg (2014) for scholarly appraisals of the Passenger Pigeon, calling his own volume rather a celebration of the bird's existence and a reminder of the fragility of the natural world. Beautifully illustrated, and including an especially attractive section on the Passenger Pigeon in art and books, it serves that purpose well. Another very appealing offering from Princeton University Press. The front jacket illustration, reproduced above in full, is John James Audubon's depiction of a male/female Passenger Pigeon pair from his Birds of North America.

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