Friday, October 17, 2014
Gone bird: A story of how 5 billion passenger pigeons vanished
The story of the demise of the passenger pigeon reads like fiction. How could a species that once existed in the billions with flocks that blackened the skies across North America in the beginning of the 19th century be gone from the wild by the century’s end?
“The Passenger Pigeon” by Errol Fuller (Princeton University Press; $29.95) tells the story. It’s been 100 years since the species became extinct. The timing of the book’s release last month marked the anniversary of the death of Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, who lived alone in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo until her death on Sept. 1, 1914. Her remains are on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Fuller, a leading extinctions scholar, writes that his book was not intended as a textbook but rather as a memorial to a species that once was important to the ecology of North America and to bring awareness to just how fragile nature can be.
“The Passenger Pigeon” details the species, its biology and its demise using illustrations, photographs, ornithological journals and historical accounts. According to the author, the passenger pigeon was a superb long-distance flier with strong muscles and aerodynamic wings built for speed.
They were nomadic birds in constant search of food. While the passenger pigeon resembled the much smaller mourning dove, DNA analysis suggests that its nearest relatives are within the genus of pigeons that includes the band-tailed pigeon.
The book describes shocking tales of shooting and trapping thousands of birds daily over decades. Overhunting the pigeons for their meat and feathers, along with the destruction of the forests the birds relied on for food and nesting, were among the contributing factors that led to extinction of the species.
Fuller includes quotes about passenger pigeons from Mark Twain and John James Audubon.
Beautifully illustrated, this easy-to-read book will appeal to anyone who wishes to understand the concept of extinction.