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Cautionary tale: new book re-tells story of the passenger pigeon

February 14, 2014 at 03:23 PM

The State Journal-Register

One hundred years ago, the last passenger pigeon on Earth lived out its final days in the Cincinnati Zoo.

It is hard to believe a bird once as numerous as the passenger pigeon had arrived at this sad and undignified end.

That’s why Chicago nature writer Joel Greenberg tried to document the passenger pigeon’s slide into oblivion in such gritty detail.

His new book “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” includes accounts of majestic flights of “wild pigeons,” and the ceaseless slaughter that drained the life out of a species that once numbered in the billions.

“Even if the numbers are wrong, there certainly were hundreds of millions of birds,” Greenberg said. “It’s hard to get one’s mind around it.”

Famed artist John James Audubon observed a flock along the Ohio River that took three days to pass in 1813.

A mass nesting of pigeons in Wisconsin in 1871 covered 850 square miles.

That is why so many find it hard to believe that human beings alone drove them to extinction.

“Modern writers find that too simplistic,” Greenberg said. “They come up with all sorts of environmental reasons (why passenger pigeon numbers dropped). People are still struggling with it.”

The passenger pigeon didn’t decline gradually. It plummeted. Numbers crashed from estimates of three to five billion to extinction within a 40-year time span.

During that time they were hunted relentlessly.

“The slaughter was terrible beyond description,” wrote a newspaper reporter for the Fond du Lac Commonwealth.

“Our guns became so hot by rapid discharges, we were afraid to load them,” the report continued. “Then while waiting for them to cool, lying on the damp leaves, we used, those of us who had them, pistols, while other three clubs, seldom if ever, failing to bring down some of the passing flocks…”

One anecdote in the book describes the use of a boat’s oar to knock passenger pigeons out of the air.

By the late 1800s, there were no passenger pigeons left in the wild.

Greenberg is no stranger to the drastic changes that wildlife and the American landscape have undergone since European settlers arrived.

His book, “A Natural History of the Chicago Region,” is a history of the growth of Chicago and what happened to the biological wealth of the area.

Northeast Illinois is particularly interesting because of the effects of the glaciers that scooped out the Great Lakes and left behind the beginnings of rich soil for prairies and marshes.

Greenberg started his research for his latest book in Aug. 2009.

He specializes in what he calls, “historical natural history.”

The 100-year anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction was approaching, so Greenberg figured the time was right to take another look at the story.

In addition to working on the book, he started Project Passenger Pigeon to help raise funds to produce a documentary film.
“We launched a crowd-funding project and tried to get people to contribute to the film,” he said.

The film, “From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” should be completed sometime in March and air in September.

“The goal is to have it aired on as many Public Broadcasting affiliates as possible,” Greenberg said.

He said the passenger pigeon’s story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a resource is left unmanaged.

Other animals and birds that almost suffered the same fate have made comebacks, including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, Canada geese, beavers and others.

For the passenger pigeon, there was no second chance, no reintroduction or endangered species recover plan.

And even though “Martha” was the last one – the end of the line, she got no more respect than the millions – no billions – of her kind that were hunted to extinction.

Because she was so old, she didn’t move around much. Greenberg writes that people threw sand into her cage, in an attempt to get a response from her.

Greenberg’s book doesn’t gloss over the waste and cruelty.

It will make you angry to read of the passenger pigeon’s senseless slaughter.

It will make you marvel at how a seemingly inexhaustible resource can be depleted.

And it may make you want to work hard to be sure it never happens again.

Author Joel Greenberg will be in central Illinois this spring to talk about his book, “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction,” Project Passenger Pigeon and the upcoming documentary film, “From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.”

He will speak at 7 p.m. April 3 at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, and at 7 p.m. April 9 at the Illinois State Museum Research & Collections Center, 1011 East Ash St.


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