Passenger Pigeons, Past And Prologue

Oct 1, 2014

I’d like you to summon into your mind’s eye the greatest animal spectacle you’ve ever seen. Was it a cloud of Snow Geese filling the sky over the Klamath Basin?  Maybe you’ve been to Jackson Hole, and seen a great herd of elk in the shadow of the Grand Tetons.  Perhaps it was nothing more exotic than a swirling flock of starlings, one of those amazing “murmurations” that form over roosts along the Rogue River on winter evenings.

It comes down to this: who is more determined, those who kill or those who protect?

Such displays of nature’s abundance are unforgettable.  The sight of thousands or tens of thousands of animals gathered together reduces the human presence in the landscape to insignificance, if only for a moment.  But, truly, we 21st-century people cannot imagine the past abundance of wild America.  And no species is a more potent symbol of all that is gone than the Passenger Pigeon.

One hundred years ago, in September 1914, the last Passenger Pigeon died a lonely death in the Cincinnati Zoo.  Her name was Martha, and she had lived the last four years of her long life in an unimaginable solitude – the only member of her species on earth.  Her death was national news, and marked the first consciously chronicled extinction in the history of the world.

How could that have happened?  Less than 50 years before Martha’s death, Passenger Pigeons were the most abundant birds on the continent, and perhaps in the world.  It is estimated that their population totaled 3 to 5 billion birds.  No one has evoked the stupendous vitality of the Passenger Pigeon better than the great conservationist Aldo Leopold.  In his essay “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” Leopold wrote:

The Passenger Pigeon was no mere bird, he was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two biotic poles of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and his own zest for living. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a travelling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminution of his own furious intensity. Once the pigeoners had subtracted from his numbers, and once the settlers had chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.

The “pigeoners” were the market hunters who engaged in relentless pursuit of the great pigeon nesting aggregations, which changed location around eastern North America in response to abundant crops of acorns.  Beginning around 1850, millions of Passenger Pigeons were slaughtered every year, shipped by rail to America’s growing cities.  Even more destructive than the actual killing (if that can be imagined) was the disruption of the colonies, which prevented the birds from breeding successfully.   From 1860 on, almost every nesting colony suffered this disruption, and the last know attempt, in 1887, was abandoned two weeks after it began.  At the same time, the clearing of the great eastern forests of oak, chestnut, and beech, robbed the dwindling flocks of the abundant food they needed to fuel their wanderings.

The Passenger Pigeon disappeared in the era before conservation laws regulated the human consumption of the wild.  Like the bison whose endless herds covered the western plains, the Passenger Pigeon was so abundant that most 19th-century Americans simply could not imagine that they would ever disappear.  Thanks to the writings and work of such conservation heroes as John Muir and Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and E.O. Wilson, and thanks to the tragic fate of Martha the Passenger Pigeon, such ignorance is no longer possible.

Instead, today we are faced with a stark question: what will we save, and what will we destroy?  These are choices, and we cannot pretend otherwise. 

As I write this, rhinoceros, tigers, and elephants are being driven to extinction by relentless poaching to feed markets for luxury trinkets and worthless “medicines.”  Much action has been taken, but not enough.  Black rhinoceros number fewer than 5000, down from 65,000 less than 50 years ago.   There are only about 3000 wild tigers left in the entire world – about the same as the number of people in such little villages as Shady Cove, Oregon and Mt. Shasta, California.

It comes down to this: who is more determined, those who kill or those who protect?

In the 1980s, the choice was made to keep California Condors alive.  From a desperate remnant of 22 wild birds, the population has now been carefully nurtured to over 400 condors, with more than half in the wild.  Plans have recently been announced to establish a new population of wild condors near the mouth of the Klamath River.  Within the decade, we may see condors soaring over Oregon for the first time in a century.  If we have the will, even the most endangered can be saved.

At the conclusion of his essay on Passenger Pigeons, Aldo Leopold wrote:

There will always be pigeons in books and museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover... Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.”

Let us not be left with nothing but book-condors, book-tigers, book-elephants, slowly turning to dust in our hands.  Let us learn from Martha’s lonely life and lonely death.  Let us choose to keep the world alive.

A frequent contributor to the Jefferson Monthly, High Country News, and other publications, Pepper Trail is an Ashland naturalist, writer, and photographer.  He is the ornithologist at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, and in his spare time leads natural history expeditions around the world.