American Birding Podcast



Pigeon Books and Book Pigeons

A review by Rick Wright

A Message from Martha, by Mark Avery

Bloomsbury, 2014

304 pages, $22—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14424

Pilgrims of the Air, by John Wilson Foster

Notting Hill, 2014

230 pages, £14.99—hardcover

The Passenger Pigeon, by Errol Fuller

Princeton University Press, 2014

184 pages, $29.95—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14406

Seventy years ago, Aldo Leopold famously lamented the day to come when no living human would remember the Passenger Pigeon: All that remained would be “book-pigeons,” “dead to all hardships and to all delights.” A hundred years after Martha breathed her tortured last, that sad day has long since arrived. But book-pigeons, or at least pigeon books, are more abundant than ever—and more diverse. While the standard works on the species remain those from American pens, the centennial of the pigeon’s extinction has also been commemorated this year by a number of European writers and conservationists.

Mark Avery is a former director of conservation for Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, an organization counting more than a million members and administering more than 300,000 acres of protected land. Avery’s long personal and professional commitment to conservation inevitably colors his Message from Martha, and for the better, explicitly linking the sad history of the great American pigeon to the uncertain future of a suite of imperiled species in Britain and Europe—including, only too appropriately, the once abundant European Turtle-Dove.

Not unexpectedly, much of Avery’s book is a rehearsal of the history of our lost pigeon, marshaling the usual witnesses to its almost sublime abundance in the earliest days of European settlement. This précis brings little that is new to most American birders, or for that matter to most Americans at all, for whom at least the general outlines of the story are part of a shared and shameful heritage.

What is new and intriguing is the series of ecological thought experiments Avery conducts in attempting to “piece together” some of the pigeon’s basic biology. For all its erstwhile abundance, there are several aspects of this species’ life history that remain remarkably poorly known. Avery ponders the connections between colonial nesting and predation; his elaboration of the pigeon’s extravagant demography leads him to suspect that the birds may have laid two eggs in some nestings and that some years may have seen colonies breed twice—carefully argued and plausible conclusions that contradict the assertions of most authorities over the past two centuries. His consideration of the causes of the species’ extinction is equally interesting, though the amusing precision with which he assigns blame—4% to exotic organisms, 85% to habitat loss, 10% to direct human depredation, 1% to the pigeon’s own behavior—is surely more a rhetorical ploy than a scientific statement.

BINbuttonThese discussions and Avery’s application of the lessons learned to the conservation of extant European birds would have made a good, if perhaps slender book. Unfortunately, the author’s decision to insert into the middle of it a 50-page account of his journey through the pigeon’s old midwestern haunts rather weakens the effect. We don’t learn much here, about pigeons or about people, and the parade of stock characters (the waitress with a heart of gold, the casual racist in a small-town cafe, the parochial American who can’t distinguish an English from an Australian accent) is, if not exactly insulting, not the way most of us would like to be remembered by a visitor from abroad, however sympathetic his views on bird conservation.

Avery’s book is unusual in the Passenger Pigeon literature in including no images of the bird: no stuffed Marthas, no flocks-darkening-the-skies landscapes, no dejected-looking captives in nineteenth-century aviaries. Errol Fuller’s Passenger Pigeon takes just the opposite approach. Though there is an informative and gracefully written text, this handsome volume tells its stories most eloquently in pictures, starting with the beautifully designed dust jacket: The front, an intensely colored detail from Audubon’s famous portrait, shows a decidedly living pigeon pair intent on the next generation, while the back is dominated by the somber gray-green of the bas-relief plaque memorializing the last Passenger Pigeon ever killed in Wisconsin.

The structure of The Passenger Pigeon is essentially chronological, the main body of the book beginning with evocations of abundance and ending, inevitably, with Martha. Three final sections—”Art and Books,” “Quotations,” and “A Magnificent Flying Machine”—are all well worth reading, but the material there should have been integrated into the book’s narrative body rather than simply appended at the end. “Art and Books” makes very little sense as a discrete chapter in a book the entire length of which is infused with revealing, often moving images.

All of the expected paintings and photographs are here, of course, from Mark Catesby’s watercolor with its characteristically weird and wonderful perspective to the latest photographic portrait of Martha, tidied up and once again on display in Washington, D.C., all reproduced clear and sharp in gratifyingly large format, many filling an entire page or opening. Those images and others are part of most Americans’ visual canon, but our store of mental images is vastly and wonderfully enriched by Fuller’s inclusion of a fantastic range of depictions of pigeons and those who have studied, hunted, and lived with them. The inextricable and ultimately fatal relationship of bird and human is evoked most powerfully in the last picture in the chapter devoted to Martha: It is a photograph not of the bird herself but of Nelson R. Wood, the Smithsonian taxidermist who stuffed and mounted the skin in 1914.

Some of the most captivating images in The Passenger Pigeon greatly postdate the species’ extinction. Walton Ford’s Falling Bough stretches over two full pages to portray the snap of an overburdened branch in a pigeon roost; as some birds still cling to their perch, dozens and hundreds of others take off in a panic. A closer look reveals the painting’s true point: the farthest ends of the falling bough do not just support pigeons, they are pigeons, the wood made flesh and the flesh recycled into wood in a cycle disrupted only by extinction. Sara Angelucci’s haunting portraits of human/pigeon “hybrids” point to another relationship, and raise the troubling question of who is next in line.

BINbuttonThere are no surviving photographs, here or anywhere so far as is known, of wild living Passenger Pigeons, but The Passenger Pigeon reproduces a score of turn-of-the-century snapshots of birds residing in the aviaries of Charles Otis Whitman. And there are plenty of dead birds to look at here, too, or at least their taxidermied remains in museum drawers, habitat groups, and Victorian display cases; one handsome mounted pigeon, jammed into a glass-fronted box with another dozen American and European birds (and a chipmunk!), is said to have been collected by Audubon himself.

Unavoidably, Fuller’s is a sad book: We know, after all, how it ends. But this is the book to share with those who are uncertain whether they are interested in the pigeon’s story at all; no one can remain unmoved in the face of the beautiful, heartbreaking images assembled here.

Foster, Pilgrims of the Skies

John Wilson Foster is an Ulsterman, educated in Oregon, now resident again in Northern Ireland after an academic career spent in British Columbia.

None of those are places associated with Passenger Pigeons.

But in his Pilgrims of the Air, Foster, a literary critic, writer, and birder, has produced one of the loveliest of literary meditations on the pigeon and its fate, its words as moving as any of the images in Fuller’s album.

Foster begins at the end, with the last-ditch efforts of a handful of conservationists and scientists to find the surviving pigeons that must, somewhere, have still been out there. But they weren’t: By 1910 and 1911, when the Passenger Pigeon Investigation was organized by such men as William Beebe and George Bird Grinnell, there were no wild birds left to investigate, and the generous rewards offered to any citizen who could reveal the nesting place of the wild pigeon went unpaid. How had that point of no return been reached in the short centuries since Europeans first tasted the flesh of the American pigeon?

In fluid, pleasing prose, Foster traces the commodification of wildlife in North America from the sixteenth century to the closing of the frontier and the extinction or near-extinction of such emblematic American creatures as the pigeon and the bison. The author ranges widely, impressively, across the earliest literature of exploration and conquest, smoothly integrating sources that a lesser writer might have been tempted to relegate to a chronological appendix.

In the chapter “This Incomperable Lande”—the title from an English translation of René Goulaine de Laudonnière’s “historie” of Florida—Foster argues that the Passenger Pigeon, far from egregious in its abundance, was simply one more expression of the lavish plenitude of creation on a continent that boasted equally incredible numbers of fish and grapes and bears and cicadas. Puritanism saw in that abundance a kind of profligacy,

at first marvelled at, [but soon enough then] to be harnessed and pruned; Nature was to be appropriated, exploited and marketed.

Foster contrasts this attitude with the belief and practices of the native inhabitants of the East and the Great Lakes, who even as they harvested large numbers at the nesting colonies, felt an “expressive sympathy” with the birds that extended so far as to embrace a faith in the literal transfer of spirits between humans and pigeons.

After an excursus into the history of European natural history, we return to the pigeon itself. Foster outlines the “prehistory” of the bird, its apparent range, movements, and habits before the arrival of white Europeans in North America, then introduces several of the canonical accounts provided by early observers; his discussion of the notorious similarities between Alexander Wilson’s description of the flocks and Audubon’s leads the author to several canny observations about the vexed relationship between the American Woodsman and the Father of American Ornithology. Besides being interesting in themselves, Passenger Pigeons, it turns out, are good to think with.

A scant two generations after the publication of Audubon’s Ornithological Biography, the pigeon was functionally gone, wiped out by the combination of naive greed and sophisticated technologies. Legislation and regret came too late for a bird that had been “forcibly removed from the evolutionary scenario.”

We will never get our pigeons back. Leopold was right about that, and right that future generations—our generations—would no longer be able to remember the most abundant bird on the continent. But as long as we have thoughtful writers to remind us, neither can we, neither should we, ever forget.

Rick Wright is the Book Review Editor at Birding.

Recommended citation:

Wright, R. 2014. Pigeon Books and Book Pigeons [a review of A Message From Martha, by Mark Avery; Pilgrims of the Sky, by John Wilson Foster; and The Passenger Pigeon, by Errol Fuller]. Birding 46 (6): 67.