American Birding Podcast



A Cautionary Tale

A review by Rick Wright

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, by Joel Greenberg

Bloomsbury, 2014

304 pages, $26.00—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14322

On May 26, 1910, Mr. Charles H. Jones of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, testified before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce:

It would appear to me, Mr. Chairman, that there should be a law passed to make a man keep his gun down and not shoot at a pigeon at all, and that an interstate law would cover that. It is none of his business as to whether it is in interstate flight or not; it is common property, and he has no more right to shoot that pigeon than I have to shoot at a horse or anybody else’s property.

Jones’s concern here was for the safety of domestic birds—he introduced himself to the Committee as the national race secretary of the National Association of American Homing Pigeon Fanciers—but it is hard not to wonder what might have been the result had similar arguments been put forth with similar fervor in the case of a closely related wild species, the Passenger Pigeon.

Screenshot 2014-01-25 15.44.33As the hundredth anniversary of the death of the last known member of that tragically famous species approaches, Joel Greenberg, a research associate at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Field Museum, suggests that there was nothing inevitable about the loss of North America’s most numerous bird. The facts and anecdotes Greenberg adduces—some of them familiar, not a few of them new to me—raise the possibility that timely legal protections and carefully shepherded captive breeding might have spared the great pigeon from extinction.

As Greenberg (like Schorger before him) points out, most of the early regulation of pigeon hunting was intended to protect people, not birds. In early eighteenth-century Quebec, shooting was banned within city limits to prevent accidents to

“passer[s]by, old people, and the children who cannot take shelter sufficiently quickly from the danger to which they are exposed by indiscreet and clumsy people….”

A Massachusetts statute enacted 120 years later prohibited shooting at pigeons—whenever, that is, such activity might interfere with other hunters’ efforts to net the birds.

Only one state, Michigan, ever passed a law banning outright the shooting of Passenger Pigeons, precisely one year before the last individuals were recorded there.

BINbuttonMore surprising than the lack of legislative interest, perhaps, is the failure of scientists and aviculturists to take advantage of the huge numbers of Passenger Pigeons that were held at one time or another in captivity. Every American schoolchild learns (or learned) about the pitiful flock in the Cincinnati Zoo and its last survivor, Martha, who died a century ago this September; many birders have also heard of the small flocks kept by David Whittaker in Wisconsin and by Charles Otis Whitman in Illinois and Massachusetts, the subjects of the only sustained studies of pigeon breeding and behavior.

Whittaker and Whitman never held more than three dozen birds between them, and over nearly twenty years their aviaries produced (if I read Greenberg correctly) only seventeen young. Another source of captive birds, however, numbered not in the dozens, or even in the hundreds, but in the tens of thousands.

We don’t always recall that today’s clay pigeons—the flat, round targets used by skeet and trap shooters —had feathered ancestors. Starting in North America in the 1820s, sportsmen combined, in Greenberg’s tendentious phrase, “the great fun that naturally flowed from killing passenger pigeons” with a competitive spirit and cash prizes. By 1880, more than 65,000 birds a year were being captured, confined, and released before the guns; three shoots held in different years in New York alone claimed a total of between 80,000 and 90,000 pigeons.

Potential breeding stock was abundantly available, and Greenberg argues that

if an attempt had been mounted early enough … they could  almost certainly have survived, even if gone from the wild…. [And] if a wild reproducing population had somehow survived a few more decades, it could have been protected by the strict conservation measures enacted in the 1930s.

What possible difference would it have made if laws had been passed, captive birds carefully curated, wild populations zealously protected?

Yes, there’s a certain romance to the thought of flocks of Passenger Pigeons sweeping across modern-day skies, but there could be more to it than that: Greenberg’s review of recent research into their historical role in the ecology of eastern North America evokes a landscape that might have been noticeably different had the pigeons survived. There might be more canebrakes in the Southeast, and with them more Swainson’s and (by a factor of infinity) more Bachman’s warblers. White-tailed deer and white-footed mice might face more competition in heavy mast years, conceivably restricting the spread of Lyme disease. Greenberg is clear that such conclusions are—can be—only speculation, but he is right to read them all the same as a warning against the notion that extinction is ever a discrete event, touching only one species at a time.

Through the main body of the book, Greenberg illustrates his points with carefully chosen anecdotes and examples, some newly discovered, others more familiar from their rehearsal 60 years ago in E.W. Schorger’s splendid The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction (1955). Most readers will be surprised and fascinated by such tales as that of the bizarre pigeon obsequies performed by the actor Junius Booth or of the clandestine activities—an early species of “eco-terrorism,” I suppose—undertaken by the Michigan Sportsmen’s Association to combat the illegal hunting of nesting birds.

The book ends with a separate section entitled “A Passenger Pigeon Miscellany” (recalling, no doubt intentionally, the “Miscellaneous Notes” concluding W.B. Mershon’s 1907 Passenger Pigeon). That label is entirely accurate, as this appendix seems to gather stories and ideas the author could not fit into the book otherwise but thought (often understandably) too good to leave out. The entries here, ranging from a short paragraph on taxonomy to four pages on the life and work of Greenberg’s great predecessor and inspiration Schorger, are in alphabetical order by subject. Jarring in its presentation, this material should have been integrated into the book proper or regretfully omitted.

None of that additional information is documented in the book’s endnotes, obliging the interested reader to turn to a library or the internet to find, for example, the original text of Eli Keller’s German-language poem “Wild Doves” (the search for which, by the way, also turns up Keller’s memoirs with several interesting pigeon anecdotes not cited by Greenberg). Neither are all of the additional secondary sources the appendix mentions included in Greenberg’s bibliography, seriously reducing the book’s value, or at least its convenience, to the serious researcher, for whom this work will join Schorger’s as a standard reference for some time to come.

The index is another, more substantial source of frustration. There is no main entry, for example, for any state or province; instead, the researcher is expected to look up (and to know!) separately every town and forest and obscure locality mentioned in the text. There is no entry for “laws” or “legislation,” and birds and other animals are listed by their English attributives rather than their group name (“white-footed mouse” rather than “mouse, white-footed”—but for some reason, just plain “deer”). A second printing would be well served, and future scholars saved considerable annoyance, by the employment of a professional indexer.

Greenberg tells a captivating story, and he remembers at the end of it to ask

Why should we care about extinction?

I’m not sure that there is ultimately any intellectually defensible, persuasive answer to that question. It may be that it is enough that we care, and that we care enough to try to avoid another loss like that of the Passenger Pigeon. A Feathered River, rich in scientific and historical detail handsomely recounted, is guaranteed to make us care even more.

Recommended citation:

Wright, R. 2014. A Cautionary Tale [a review of A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg.] Birding 46 (3): 67.