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