The passenger pigeon by Errol Fuller – review

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

SUMMARY: Written by an artist and authority on extinct species, this book shares rare photographs and other visual materials to provide a general overview to the history of the extinct passenger pigeon.

"Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

-- Leopold Aldo, A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There (1949, 1989. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 109.)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Errol Fuller’s slim book, The Passenger Pigeon, is surely stuffed full of them [Princeton University Press, 2014; Guardian bookshop; Amazon UK; Amazon US]. This book gathers old photographs, engravings, paintings and other memorabilia together into a pictorial celebration of the passenger pigeon and -- less celebratory -- the ways that people interacted with this iconic species.

The text provides an abbreviated overview of the tragic story of the passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, with a special focus on the species’ last few decades. It serves as a good introduction for those who know little about this species, but it is limited in scope and appears to be targeted to younger readers. This treatment should be sufficient to pique most readers’ interest especially since additional resources, a few of them still in print, are cited in the 3-page bibliography so readers can follow up. I was surprised that no mention was made of Mark Avery’s book, A Message from Martha, which was published only a few months ago (nearly simultaneously with Joel Greenberg’s book, which was mentioned and cited).

Printed on heavy, glossy acid-free paper, this book’s primary purpose is to provide a visual context for the history of passenger pigeons. Many of its pages are lavishly illustrated with rare photographs of the birds -- some of which I’ve never seen before -- particularly of captive individuals kept and bred by aviculturist David Whittaker. Also included are some of the sketches and paintings, music and poetry that the pigeons inspired, as well as some items of historical interest. Since this book is a visual memorial, I was surprised and disappointed that the images on pages 102-104 are so poorly formatted; lacking any white borders surrounding them, so they almost run together, making each image difficult to study and contemplate.

In addition to the numerous rare photographs, the best part of this book (in my opinion) is the Appendix. Written by Julian Pender Hume, the appendix declares the passenger pigeon “a magnificent flying machine” and then goes about providing some physical evidence to support this claim. It compares the passenger pigeon to the pink pigeon, Nesoenas mayeri, which occurs only on the island of Mauritius, and to the rock dove, Columba livia, a generalist pigeon that lives in many cities throughout the world. Accompanying this discussion are two lovely pencil sketches of a pink pigeon and a passenger pigeon that allow direct comparisons of their body and wing shapes, and a photograph of each species’ keel bone (breast bone) where the flight muscles attach.

This book provides a general introduction to the history of the passenger pigeon through its collection of rare photographs and other visual materials that most people have not seen before. It will probably appeal to younger readers, it is a fast read and it could be a satisfying companion volume to the other two passenger pigeon books that have been recently published.

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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.

Read my review of historian Joel Greenberg's book about passenger pigeons, A feathered river across the sky.

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Disclaimer: GrrlScientist has no known connection to the book's author. Outside of receiving a free review copy of this book, no compensation was received by GrrlScientist for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher.

NOTE: this piece is slightly edited from the original, written by GrrlScientist and published on The Guardian.

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Grrlscientist can be found on on her eponymous Guardian blog, and she sometimes lurks on social media; facebook, G+, LinkedIn, Pinterest. She's quite active on twitter: @GrrlScientist

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