Author Joel Greenberg on the Passenger Pigeon: “They’re gone because we destroyed them. We systematically, unrelentingly killed them.”
By Liz Acas for Connecticut Audubon Society
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The extinction of the once-abundant Passenger Pigeon shows that any species could be in danger today, author Joel Greenberg told a rapt audience at Yale University on March 12.
Greenberg, author of the acclaimed book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, described the fall of the species that went from the most common in North America during the 19th century to complete decimation by 1914. His lecture, presented by Connecticut Audubon Society and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, marked the 100th anniversary of the birds’ demise. About 150 people packed Yale’s Kroon Hall for the event.
In a talk that covered the bird’s destruction, its legacy, and the lessons for us today, Greenberg said it’s no mystery why the birds disappeared and that humans are to blame.
“They’re gone because we destroyed them,” he said. “We systematically, unrelentingly killed them.”
Passenger Pigeons, Greenberg noted, were “unlike any other birds that humans have ever known.” This was largely due to their sheer abundance. Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, counted their population at 2 billion. But even beyond their numbers, they inspired a kind of wonder that few other creatures do.
“Early naturalists were amazed by what they saw,” he said.
John James Audubon once described a three-day nesting in which the sun was obscured and the bird droppings were “like flakes of snow.”
Greenberg read an account of one nesting in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1850s. The flock was so large and dense that it looked like a cloud. People fell to their knees and prayed. They thought the end was near.
Yet a scant 60 years later, the birds’ commercial value as a source of cheap protein eclipsed whatever awe they once stirred. Aided by new technologies, Greenberg explained, a new nationwide industry could kill and sell the birds in astounding quantities. Hunters who tracked the movement of flocks used the telegraph to alert other hunters hundreds of miles away. With the railroad, the industry could supply a national market. Packing the pigeons 300 to a barrel, sellers moved 100 carloads daily for a month during one peak hunting period.
Habitat loss also played a role, he said. As New England lost forests, there were fewer places to nest. The federal government also encouraged habitat destruction with the Swampland Act of 1849, which offered free land to anyone who would drain wetlands and put the property to agricultural use.
Greenberg, like the authors of four previous books on Passenger Pigeons, concluded that habitat destruction was not the primary cause of the birds’ extinction, however. The pigeons’ decline started while there was still sufficient habitat. Moreover, he explained, the birds proved to be adaptable. They ate more than just the acorns provided by oak forests, he said, suggesting that they not dependant on just one type of habitat. They were also known to eat elm and beech seeds, and even grain.
There was no unified movement to protect the Passenger Pigeon, although there were glimmers. In 1857, the Ohio legislature studied the matter, only to conclude that the birds were too abundant to ever have their numbers reduced. The Ohio Historical Society later called the incident one of the most embarrassing in state history.
“But attitudes can change,” Greenberg noted. Answering a question about parallels to later extinct species, he noted there was a widespread push to save the Heath Hen, which became extinct in 1932. Although that movement was ultimately unsuccessful, it showed how quickly public opinion about the natural world can shift.
Protections that species enjoy today came too late for the Passenger Pigeon.
The Lacey Act, which banned interstate trafficking of wildlife, was passed in 1900, when the species was already on its way to extinction. The Migratory Bird Act followed in 1918. Finally, the publication of Silent Spring prompted a host of environmental laws including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. However, Greenberg noted, those laws are constantly threatened.
“We have to be vigilant,” he said. “If something as abundant as this can be wiped out in one decade, things much less abundant could be wiped out like that.”
Meanwhile, there is the birds’ cultural legacy. Place names like Huntingbird, Ind., and Pigeon Falls, Wisc, memorialize the birds. Dubiously, their destruction also spawned the expression “stool pigeon,” which originally referred to the bird that hunters used as bait to trap others in netting.
Passengers Pigeons were recorded in literature and were even the subject of a symphony. James Fenimore Cooper featured them in a scene of The Pioneers, his novel of the New York State frontier. Anthony Philip Heinrich, often called America’s first professional composer of symphonies, created his masterwork about them.
And, Greenberg noted, the birds’ power to inspire creative works continues today. Just in this century, there have been four books about the birds. As though to underscore his point, an audience member rose from her seat during the question-and-answer period to read an original poem about Passenger Pigeons.
The lesson for us now is that we cannot take anything for granted, Greenberg said. Today’s global markets mean that a sudden demand for a North American species on another continent could be quickly fulfilled, he noted. He said that even a bird like the robin could fall to extinction if it was suddenly found to have commercial value and there were no legal protections.
“It could happen to anything,” he said. “Nothing’s safe.”