A feathered river across the sky by Joel Greenberg – review

1 September 2014 by GrrlScientist, posted in Birds, Book review

One hundred years ago today, the last passenger pigeon, a captive-bred adult named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Since we knew that she was the last of her kind, her body was frozen into a 300-pound block of ice before she was shipped by train to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was skinned, dissected and preserved as a mount.

Although none of the people who knew the living bird are themselves still alive today, we can still learn more about this iconic bird through their writings and photographs, thanks to Joel Greenberg’s book, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction [Bloomsbury USA, 2014]. Written by a research associate at the Field Museum and the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and co-founder of Project Passenger Pigeon, this comprehensive book meticulously documents much that is known about this iconic bird.

The extinct passenger pigeon or wild pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, was a sleek handsome bird with a pointed tail and elongated wings, resembling the much smaller mourning dove. Adult males had slaty blue-grey upper-parts with a copper-coloured breast and shimmering iridescent plumage that changed colours from royal blue to emerald green under changing light conditions. Adult females wore more subdued plumage, whilst the juveniles, which resembled females, were paler with white spots on their wings.

Passenger pigeons were gregarious, roosting and nesting in such prodigious numbers that their combined weight sometimes uprooted entire trees or broke off branches. Most of the birds nested in tremendous colonies covering hundreds of thousands of acres and containing many millions, possibly billions, of birds. Whether these large flocks were an essential component for breeding to occur is uncertain but they also nested in small groups or even as solitary pairs in the wild, and they also bred readily in aviaries.

Wild pigeons ate a varied diet. They favoured the seasonal crop of nuts (“mast”) produced by deciduous trees, especially oaks, but they also consumed corn, buckwheat and other cereal crops planted by farmers, and they ate worms and insects, especially when raising young.

Passenger pigeons were the most numerous birds in North America, and may have been the most numerous bird on the planet. Experts estimate that their population numbered somewhere between three and five billion during the early- to mid-1800s.

These elegant birds were built for speed and endurance. In historical times, they wandered low over the continent’s landscape in immense flocks, darkening the sky for days. According to the descriptions inspired by their movements, it’s easy to believe that if passenger pigeons were alive today, they would have routinely stopped all air traffic for days across large parts of North America.

History suggests that few things stimulate human ingenuity more than the challenge of killing. This is most evident when the intended targets are other human beings, for no other organism poses anywhere near the same severity of threat. But as a species, we are no slackers even when the adversary is an eighteen-inch-long bird. Safe only when they rose above high enough to exceed the range of weaponry, the passenger pigeons otherwise lived a gauntlet whereby they became the targets of an arsenal that employed an amazing array of instruments. [p. 91]

Subsistence hunting of passenger pigeons was not enough. Instead, men, women and children often traveled long distances, gathering where ever the passenger pigeons congregated, and the birds were massacred by the hundreds and by the thousands -- in numbers far greater than anyone could possibly consume -- for simple amusement. Males, females and their eggs and chicks (squabs) were all targeted indiscriminately. After the pigeons were dead, they were eaten or their feathers were used to stuff pillows and feather beds, they were dressed for sale and shipped to nearby cities, they fed to swine or simply left to rot -- not unlike the fate of millions of American bison, for example.

Wild pigeons were slaughtered using any conceivable sort of weapon, ranging from bare hands or clubs to canons, from torching the birds whilst they slept in their nests or roosts at night to simply biting their heads off. Entire competitions were designed to celebrate the greatest number of pigeons that could be killed with a single shotgun blast or could be killed by one person within a specific span of time. Large social events and tournaments were held where thousands of wild pigeons were transported to large cities like New York where they become trap shooting targets for rich and powerful gentlemen, whilst cheering mobs gambled on who might be the eventual winner. Although viewed as a sport, these events were firing squads where the wild pigeons, having been shipped for days under abysmal conditions and barely alive due to lack of food and water, were shot moments after release.

But at least some pigeons escaped or managed to recover from their wounds. According to one anonymous pigeon hunter in the state of Wisconsin, a close examination of his pigeon carcasses revealed “a host of wounds from ‘previous assaults’: ‘broken and disjointed legs; bills that had been shot half away and grown curiously out again; missing toes or even a whole leg; and even healed up breast wounds.’” (p. 97)

The passenger pigeons’ resilience and tremendous numbers allowed this bloodshed to continue unabated for fifty years. But in the end, the carnage was brought to an abrupt halt because the vast flocks of wild pigeons disappeared. Yet even at the end of the 1800s -- and despite their rarity -- the last few wild pigeons were still being singled out whilst feeding in the company of flocks of other avian species or they were shot out of the sky and, once again, their bodies were typically discarded, or were occasionally made into mounts or eaten.

The final chapters of Mr Greenberg’s book record the last few breeding attempts made by passenger pigeons across the eastern United States and Southeastern Canada. Reading this rollcall to extinction is almost like listening to the tolling of a distant bell for a funeral, except this bell tolls for the loss of an entire nation, it documents the indefensible, willful decimation of an entire species that will never again grace this planet.

Even as people knew these birds were disappearing, the persecutions intensified, and several million pigeons were recorded as being slaughtered and shipped to cities from their final mass nesting attempts during their last decade on the planet. This of course, leaves one to wonder how many additional deaths were unrecorded because no one bothered to collect the dead birds? And the numbers of live birds shipped to trapshoots in those final years remain undocumented, as well.

But even in the last few years of their existence, these birds often died in vain; upon reaching the cities, it was not uncommon for barrels of pigeons to be discarded as unfit for human consumption.

This carnage left just a few dozen passenger pigeons alive in private aviaries and zoos. The last of them all, named Martha, was a captive-bred bird with a tangled history who resided at the Cincinnati Zoo. First, she was part of a small group, but they died one by one until Martha was the last living representative of her species. But even during the last four years of her life, the ageing Martha was sometimes harassed by the public, who gathered outside her aviary on Sundays to throw sand at her so she would move around the enclosure.

This compendium, which clearly is a labour of love, took four years to investigate and write. It is meticulously researched and thoroughly cited, containing a readable 34-page appendix of miscellany, 16 pages of chapter notes, a 14-page bibliography and a 15-page index. The index’s usefulness is limited to listing only the names of people and places, instead of additional terms that would probably interest most readers, terms such as pets, zoos, captive breeding or aviculture, although all these topics were mentioned in the book, even if only briefly.

The book includes numerous black-and-white photographs, drawings and a few maps embedded within the text and a special insert with full-colour illustrations -- paintings, photographs, sketches and other historical materials that add context to this shameful story.

The writing was uneven and generally pedestrian although it sometimes was witty or personable. However, the considerable effort required to hunt down and read the historical materials, some of which are newly brought to light so this book could be written in the first place makes this the most important document about the passenger pigeon to be published since A. W. Shorger’s monograph, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction (1955). I suspect that the author’s dedication came at a price: I can barely imagine the huge emotional toll that researching and writing this book must have taken on Mr Greenberg.

A Feathered River Across the Sky is critically valuable as a reference work and as a historical document. This chronicle is a powerful record of the extinction of a species at the hands of man and for this reason alone, it is our responsibility to read this book from cover to cover. As such, it serves as a quietly damning reflection of our outrageous hubris and arrogance, and the myriad destructive ways that we behave as individuals, as a culture and as a species.

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You may wish to read about a recently published study that further explores the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

You may also wish to watch several videos that discuss Martha’s last homes.

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Written by @grrlscientist
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