Book: The passenger pigeon

Some years back, after a fruitless day spent up to my waist in a chilly Scottish river, I was sipping a restorative malt and resentfully eyeing the grainy old photographs on the wall of the pub.

In one, three bearded men holding crude bamboo fly rods, were surrounded by their day’s catch – hundreds of salmon piled knee-high – a testament to the waste and rapaciousness of people when resources are seemingly endless.

The slightly bitter memory returned while reading this account of North America’s hapless passenger pigeon, a powerful reminder that the natural world can be fragile and vulnerable and no matter how robust a species may appear, it can be put at risk to the point of extinction.

At the beginning of the 19th century the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird on Earth, numbering literally in the billions. Flocks were so large that, as they flew over, they could blot out the Sun for days on end.

For pioneer farmers it must have been terrifying too, to see the birds descend with a thunder of beating wings, breaking oak branches under their weight and destroying crops before moving on to lay waste to the next farm, and the next.

Simon Pokagon, the last chief of the Pokagon band of Potawatomi on whose land Chicago was built, spoke of his people’s long relationship with the birds.

“The … pigeon … was known to our race as O-me-me-wog. Why the European race didn’t accept that name was, no doubt, because the bird so much resembled the domesticated pigeons; they naturally called it a wild pigeon, as they called us wild men.”

But by 1914, the O-me-me-wog were no more. Martha, the last of her kind, died in a cage in Cincinnati Zoo, and that was that.

In truth, as with the Native American lifestyle, the pigeons were incompatible with the technological age being rolled out across the continent and were doomed as the West opened up. As Fuller writes: “The species was a great force of nature, with a life-cycle in conflict with the new order … yet, what no one could have predicted was the utter annihilation of the species, or the fact that this would occur in a little more than a century.”

Even in this age of vanishing species, the sheer scale of the devastation has the ability to shock – a sad and cautionary tale.

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