Pigeon Rivers, Gone, But Not Forgotten.
On a recent late winter evening, in the magnificent lecture hall at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, we learned first hand about author Joel Greenberg’s fascination with the Passenger Pigeon. Mr. Greenberg has complied all that he could unearth on this subject into a book. A Feathered River Across the Sky by Joel Greenberg is a beautiful hardcover book published by Bloomsbury USA New York, that relates almost everything that can be pulled from historical sources on “The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.” The Connecticut Audubon Society and The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies jointly sponsored this talk. CAS President Alexander R. Brash introduced the speaker.
It is a bit sad to realize that everything that is known about this bird that can be uncovered by a skilled and determined researcher can be contained in 286 pages including extensive notes, references and color plates. Martha, the last of her species died in 1914, 70 years before her death, there were most certainly in excessive of a billion Passenger Pigeons winging over the skies of Eastern North America.
A few of the points from his talk about his book stood out and remain with me today. A John James Audubon contemporary recorded in his journal a flight of pigeons that darkened the sun and was continually moving overhead for a period of 4 days; extrapolation of the numbers from this passage produces a staggering figure in the billions of birds just in this one flock. They nested in huge concentrations. One of the last mass nesting contained perhaps a million birds, it was the last one observed and they were commercially extinct shortly there after. Trains and the telegraph made it possible for commercial harvesters to relentlessly follow the rivers of protein and deliver steady train-loads of barrels of pigeons to food markets in big cites.
The life history and nesting habits of these birds were never studied. Few laws were passed to protect the species and any that were arrived to late to have an effect. The Passenger Pigeon was perhaps the most numerous species of bird on earth certainly in it’s day, it spoke to the richness of the North American ecosystem. However the living ecosystem even then was undergoing dramatic change by the hand of man through drainage of wetlands and loss of forests, and the pigeon was over and out by the time before anyone knew what was happening. Would such abundance even be allowed today; would it be classified as a pest in need of control?
Clearly there are modern lessons from this extinction to be learned and applied if we have the moral conviction and fortitude to fight such battles in the face of apathy and financial interests. We only have to look at the “commercial” fish in the world’s oceans, once too vast to count, now dwindling to commercial extinction in many fisheries. Yet the unsustainable harvest goes on, after all there are people to feed and of course money to be made. Similarly but less obvious is the migrant bird loss proven without a doubt by the alarming studies began by Sidney A. Gauthreaux of Clemson who determined from spring radar studies from 1960’s to the 1980’s that the number of Neotropical migrants crossing the Gulf of Mexico were reduced by half during that period. Now you might say that there are still lots Neotropic migrants left, but losing perhaps one half of the avifauna flooding into North America in a short 20 years ought to set off alarm bells. Why are we not screaming for action? With such apathy, the question concerning modern Passenger Pigeons such as the fishes and common birds is will we do something or will our children be reading about another tragic loss in a hundred years that could have been prevented and wonder why nothing was done.
There were other Passenger Pigeon enthusiasts in the room such as poet Sharon Sweet.
Joel’s remarkable summary of the flight to extinction that saw the Passenger Pigeon’s population plummet from billions to zero in 40 years ought to make us think about our responsibilities today to those critters where it may not yet be too late to help. Get tough and regulate the fisheries. Make North America safe for migrants. Turn off the lights in your cites, consider where you place your wind turbines, and towers. Cover your toxic lakes. Promote contiguous forest patches. Create migrant safe zones all along the route to the breeding areas. Watch your application of any chemicals to the land and, most of all act responsively