The Pas­sen­ger Pi­geon by Er­rol Fuller, Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 184 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Sandy Nel­son

Ex­tinc­tion watches might be­come a trend if life on Earth main­tains its cur­rent course. Ac­cord­ing to a July 2014 ar­ti­cle in Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can , hu­mans have elim­i­nated 1,000 species from the planet since our old­est­known an­ces­tor ap­peared 200,000 years ago, and the pace is ac­cel­er­at­ing: The In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture lists 20,000 en­dan­gered species, and sci­en­tists fear we are wit­ness­ing the sixth mass die-off of plant and an­i­mal species in the past 500 mil­lion years — one that can’t be blamed on a meteorite or vol­ca­noes.

The pas­time of ex­tinc­tion count­downs ar­guably be­gan with the pas­sen­ger pi­geon, whose last rep­re­sen­ta­tive died in soli­tary con­fine­ment in the Cincin­nati Zoo 100 years ago last Septem­ber. Ex­tinc­tions scholar Er­rol Fuller marks this somber an­niver­sary with a lav­ishly il­lus­trated trib­ute to a bird whose com­mon name was de­rived from the French word pas­sager , for its swift and ag­ile flight.

At the dawn of the 19th cen­tury, pas­sen­ger pi­geons were so abun­dant that mi­grat­ing flocks could block the sun for days. Within a cen­tury, they had van­ished from the wild and only an un­sus­tain­able num­ber of cap­tives sur­vived.

While farm­ers vil­i­fied the pas­sen­ger pi­geon for con­sum­ing crops and or­chards — even as those same set­tlers were me­thod­i­cally destroying the bird’s for­est habi­tat — John James Audubon cap­tured its beauty on can­vas and Mark Twain and James Fen­i­more Cooper im­mor­tal­ized it in lit­er­a­ture. Once hunted in mod­er­ate num­bers by Na­tive Amer­i­cans, the pas­sen­ger pi­geon was doomed af­ter a com­mer­cial mar­ket emerged for its meat and feath­ers.

“The sheer fe­roc­ity of the hu­man on­slaught” was more than the pas­sen­ger pi­geon could bear, Fuller writes. One ac­count of an or­ga­nized sport-shoot­ing event was printed in Wis­con­sin’s Fond du Lac Com­mon­wealth news­pa­per in 1871. “The con­tents of a score of dou­ble bar­rels was poured into their dense midst. Hun­dreds, yes thou­sands dropped into the open fields be­low. … The slaugh­ter was ter­ri­ble be­yond any de­scrip­tion,” the re­porter re­calls. While wait­ing for their over­heated shot­guns to cool, the hun­ters used pis­tols and clubs on wounded birds. “The scene was truly pitiable.”

Af­ter decades of un­re­stricted car­nage, a species once im­mea­sur­able proved fi­nite. “As far as the ac­tual decline is con­cerned, the log­i­cal con­clu­sion must surely be that Pas­sen­ger Pi­geon num­bers had been re­duc­ing for many years, but the sheer vast­ness of th­ese num­bers tended to fool the eye and the mind,” Fuller writes. “Even­tu­ally there came a point when the slump to­ward zero be­gan to be­come ap­par­ent, even though there were still mil­lions of in­di­vid­u­als left. And when the tip­ping point came, the fall was un­be­liev­ably fast.”

As “pitiable” as the sight of thou­sands of dy­ing pi­geons was to the Wis­con­sin re­porter, so were the des­per­ate ef­forts of con­ser­va­tion­ists to save the rem­nants of Ec­topistes mi­gra­to­rius. We know this bird only by the haunt­ing pho­to­graphs, bril­liant por­traits, and static spec­i­mens pre­served by taxi­der­mists. But we know oth­ers like it, an­i­mals some den­i­grate as “varmints” or “nui­sances” be­cause their in­ter­ests con­flict with ours. Fuller’s book is a timely re­minder to Earth’s most dom­i­nant species that the nat­u­ral world yields only so far be­fore it col­lapses. As beau­ti­ful as this eu­logy is, read­ers will hope it’s the last he has to write.

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