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Mar 11, Comments. Was it a tragedy of the commons? Are these events likely to be repeated? When European visitors to North America returned with descriptions of the magnitude of passenger pigeon flocks, they were justifiably met with incredulity, and they sometimes kept quiet, suspecting that no one would believe them anyway. Yet credible accounts tell of virtual rivers of migrating birds.

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction

One observer, English hunter and naturalist W. Swiftly and steadily the column passed over with a rushing sound, and for hours continued in undiminished myriads. The duration of this flight being about fourteen hours. Experts now estimate that this flock would have contained about 3. About half a century later, not a single pigeon was left. Indeed, the passage of these pigeons could evoke apocalyptic descriptions.

Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped to their knees and prayed. Day was turned to dusk. He has a habit of blurring time and place so that the whole country seems hell-bent on blasting, stomping, and literally biting the pigeons to death, as if it were this zeal, and not a complex web of industrial and environmental factors, that led to their extinction.

Human beings live in their historical and cultural contexts as much as passenger pigeons lived in fields, trees, and sky; it is important to remember, for example, that rural people hunted for food in the days before factory farming and supermarkets.


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The chicken industry in this country alone kills more than seven billion birds a year—far more than the total number of passenger pigeons at their peak. Nobody in the nineteenth century had figured out how to make the slaughter of the birds sustainable, but it is worth wondering what we would think of the passenger pigeon, and ourselves, if they had.

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It would also have been useful if Greenberg had explored the fact that when the last of the great flocks were being killed off, in the eighteen-seventies, America was suffering from the aftershocks of the Panic of and the economic depression that followed. There is only so much fair-trade chocolate one developing country can produce. They wanted competition and ways to turn the slaughter into a game.

Understanding the relationship between guns and conservation is as important as understanding the relationship between passenger pigeons and beechnuts. The Boone and Crockett Club, founded for rich sportsmen in , by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, morphed into a powerful lobbying group that boasted among its members John F.

Lacey, the Republican congressman from Iowa, who spoke movingly about the passenger pigeon on the floor of the House of Representatives as he argued for what became the first federal bird-protection law, the Lacey Act, of These men were conservationists not in spite of their trophy hunting but because of it—they wanted vast protected forests because they wanted a vast supply of creatures to kill. Arguably the most important environmentalist of his age, Grant created vital hunting laws, built the New York Zoological Society, and helped save the bison.

A Feathered River Across the Sky The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction

That he was also a biological racist of such extreme convictions that Hitler sent him a fan letter is, however, also part of the story. So is the fact that William Hornaday, who helped Grant reintroduce bison into Oklahoma, displayed a Congolese Pygmy in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo in We are only human, and as complex as the creatures we mourn. Shufeldt, the scientist who dissected Martha for the Smithsonian.

A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY by Joel Greenberg | Kirkus Reviews

So while he had no regard for many of his fellow citizens, he was moved by the object on his dissecting table. White men, Grant believed, needed protection as much as the bison and the passenger pigeon. To that end, he helped persuade Congress to keep Jews, Asians, and Eastern Europeans—the rock pigeons of the world—out of the country. Is it possible to love the bird on the table more than your fellow-citizens? Of course—especially if you gerrymander humanity into discrete populations and value some groups more than others.

For Grant, this was a racial matter, but there are lots of ways to divide a population. We no longer live in an age when a powerful President and his hunting buddies can snatch up millions of acres of wilderness and set them aside for the public good; without a broad consensus, there is not much hope of saving anything. And without a capacity for complexity there is not much hope of knowing even what needs saving. The great biologist E.

Why the passenger pigeon became extinct.

Wilson speaks about a coming wave of extinctions whose scope eludes us, because though there may be anywhere from ten million to a hundred million species in the world, we have identified far fewer than two million. Unlike the passenger pigeon, these creatures may be hidden in oceans, forest canopies, handfuls of earth. It takes effort and imagination to sift through this information, just as it requires an educated humanism to figure out whether a de-extinction project holds real environmental promise or is only an ancient longing for resurrection disguised as bioengineering.

Indeed, when it comes to our relationship to nature, the wish for simplicity may be the most destructive thing in the world. A flight over Columbus, Ohio, in elicited the following eye-witness account: As the watchers stared, the hum increased to a mighty throbbing. Recommended Stories. Sign in. Get the best of The New Yorker in your in-box every day.