Thursday, April 11, 2013

Passenger Pigeons # 1

Trying something new here. I have either three or four new possible books on deck, though how I will find energy to do them all is a... challenge. One is natural history and ornithology, one a novel, long set -aside,  and I am not sure I want to say more about either it or the other one/ two yet. But the natural history has a neat 3000 word intro/ outline/ essay and a real plan, and I thought I might put that much in here as two or three excerpts, as the whole thing is only 3000 words.

I have developed the idea a bit, though more conventionally, in Living Bird; it may be available online there, as it was published a few issues back. My actual thesis is rather more radical: the PP, at least as we "know" it, is an ecological phenomenon. Human culture (Paleoindian burning, starting as recently as 12,000 YA) created it; human culture (as in our, colonial version) killed it. Read and ponder and let me know if you want to hear more. Since "Martha" the last PP, died in 1914, it seems an appropriate date.

A Feathered Tempest:
The Improbable Life and Sudden Death of the Passenger Pigeon

“The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no diminuition of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter or even a wisp of smoke.”
-Aldo Leopold, 1947
“Slowly the passenger pigeons increased, then suddenly their numbers
Became enormous, they would flatten ten miles of forest
When they flew down to roost, and the cloud of their rising
Eclipsed the dawn. They became too many, they are all dead.
Not one remains.”
Robinson Jeffers

The passenger pigeon was not just a bird. Calling it a “biological storm,” as Aldo Leopold did, was an understatement; it was more like a series of simultaneous biological hurricanes, blowing all the time. At its population’s peak, four to five billion pigeons roared over the forests and prairies of the east and midwest, a number equal to the entire population of overwintering birds in the U.S.. A single flock in motion could darken the sky over 180 square miles. One recorded breeding colony in Wisconsin in 1871 was 125 miles long and between six and eight miles wide. Such a flock could consume two and ten million liters of food a day.
The passenger pigeon is an icon, a symbol of the fertility of the pre-Columbian world and our ruining of Eden. We Europeans came to a world of abundance, cut down the trees, shot the pigeons, and hauled out barrels of salted pigeons in railroad cars to the markets of the east. By the 1870’s the birds were in retreat; in 1914, the last, cutely named “Martha” after George Washington’s wife, died in a zoo in Cincinnati. The pigeon’s extinction symbolizes the heedless exploitation of a continent’s riches at the hands of our culture.
All this is true, as far as it goes. But if you begin to consider the conventional narrative, to look at the tale through contemporary scientific eyes, it begins to look curiously thin.
Such a biological phenomenon could not have acted in a void. Modern ecological thinking shows us that if you subtract a species that once consisted of 40% of all the birds in North America, you lose or change more than just a bird. Passenger pigeons fed on enormous amounts of “mast,” the nuts produced by the dominant species of the eastern hardwood forest: white oak, beech, and chestnut. Of these, two are at least mildly in retreat today relative to other species, one seems to have fewer “crops,” and one is ecologically if not genetically extinct. Other species of plants also seem to be affected. Berries from no fewer than eleven families were dispersed by passenger pigeons, and some now rarely fall at any distance from their parent plant.
The pure physical effect of the flocks would have been like nothing that exists on the planet today. The weight of the pigeons and their nests damaged the forest like a hurricane, breaking limbs and even toppling trees. But no hurricane would also leave inches of nitrogen-rich droppings on the forest floor. Contemporary observers said the ground looked “snow-covered” after the pigeons passed. The droppings first killed grasses and understory vegetation, then promoted riotous growth a year or two down the line.
Other species could not help but be affected. The recently-rediscovered ivory- billed woodpecker prefers to feed in dead trees; could the loss of such abundant provisions have contributed to its near extinction? The pigeon’s demise may also have had an impact on such creatures as the Bachman’s, blue-winged, and golden-winged warbler, the Carolina parakeet, the eastern box turtle, and the American burying beetle. The term “keystone species” has become a part of our common understanding: a species so important that knocking it from its place in the ecological arch causes a tumbling cascade of change and destruction. The more one looks at the passenger pigeon, the more it looks like the “mother of all keystone species”.
I first began looking into the importance of this bird during an internet discussion among some friends, mostly naturalists and biologists, on rare and extinct birds. Someone asked a question about the pigeon. I had been reading about the Pleistocene extinctions, the coming of humans to the continent, and about the effect of fire on landscapes. Suddenly, all of these phenomena looked to be related. Some of the “facts” about the pigeon and about pre-Columbian America in general began to appear very strange. Things contrary to our simple myths began to emerge from the mist.
During the last glaciation, cold steppes existed as far south as the latitude of modern Delaware. South of this ecosystem was an extensive band of boreal forest, which also covered the Rockies, and much of the plains south of glacial-edge steppes were forested as well. PiƱon-juniper savannah, better-watered than today, covered much of the southwest. Tropical ecosystems in Mexico may have been drier than today, but were in much the same place. Deciduous forest occupied only a fraction of its later space on the continent.
So, where were the pigeons?


Just Another Savage! said...

Earnestly looking forward to more!

Chas Clifton said...

I am sure you read speculation that the passenger pigeon irruption was connected to a decline in human population following De Soto's expedition, etc. (the Spanish secret weapon being the pigs--so secret that they did not even know they had it).

Is that line of thinking still current?

Steve Bodio said...

Mann I think. Seems unlikely without a lot more going on.

Why didn't they ever get so big before? Why did it take industrial predation to bring them down if natives could hold them in check? I think they WERE big, but not much affected by human predation. Ask Reid but I believe there is little evidence of them in Paleo meals.

More to come...

Why were there so many more oaks?

Mark Farrell-Churchill said...

"Read and ponder and let me know if you want to hear more."

Yes. More. Please.

Reid Farmer said...

Charles Mann did bring up that theory in "1491". There are a number of papers out I have seen that document that sort of "rebound" effect on California wildlife populations after Indian populations crashed. I haven't seen similar papers about the Eastern US - doesn't mean they don't exist, I just haven't seen any.

And it is mysterious - one of the first emails I ever sent Steve was about a paper I attended at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in 2005. It was a survey of zooarchaeology of the PP and the conclusion was their remains were extremely rare in prehistoric archaeological sites of all time periods. How could you completely ignore a huge food source?

Also, and this just occurred to me, PP don't really appear in prehistoric art in that area either. Woodland and Mississippian art is full of raptors, woodpeckers, turkeys, and ducks - so they were into birds. But no PP.

Steve - next time you are in town we need to go see the PP diorama at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

guy boyd said...

Yes, more PP please. I wonder if the large size of the eastern anatums ( I read somewhere, "Falconry News and Notes" from the 1950s I think, that Al Nye trapped one that weighted 54 oz) is because of the rich nutrition and abundance of the PP's- analagous to brown bears that have evolved into jumbo grizzles because of a diet of salmon.
Steve, I would also like your email address because I would like to discuss with you items of similar interes: eg, falcony, pigeons, generational similarities (I was born 3/26/50), you are a gifted writer,I wish I was one.
You can send your email address to

Guy Boyd said...

Yes, more PP please. I wonder if the large size of the eastern anatum is because of this nutritionaly rich and abundant food source-analagous to brown bears growing into jumbo grizzlies because of their salmon diet.
Steve, would you send me your email address since I would like to discuss several things we have in common, eg: falcony, pigions,age (born 3-26-50).you are a writer, I wish I was one. If you like you can respond to

Anonymous said...

I think you have a novel( or three!!) to be delivered yet!- I believe Querencia is still the widest read , and plaudited, yet, and that odes well for me!!- That way , maybe wider recognition ( and reward?)lies ?!- as if that matters?

But who am I to advise!! just follow your heart .....

Best from afar


Anonymous said...

YES! MORE! Don't leave us hanging too long! I've always been fascinated by Passenger Pigeons--many mysteries there. I read Allan Eckert's "Silent Sky" as a kid, and have been pondering this feathered phenomenon ever since. I hadn't heard that about the Pass P's not being present much in archaeological meal remains--could that have to do with such delicate bones being hard to preserve from so long ago? Are other bird bones present in the Arch. records? Could the Indians have USED the bones for something else(ground up, perhaps?) It seems CRAZY that they wouldn't have utilized this massive food source, if it were always available. Some ancient taboo lost in time as well? A disease transmitted to people by eating too many pigeons?....L.B.

Matt Miller said...

A very worthy book subject. I look forward to reading more.

I had been afraid that someone would write this book who had no natural history knowledge--an author who could not tell a pigeon from a wigeon.

Like a biography I was reading last night, in which the author mentioned a naturalist collecting hummingbird in Asia, and called the blackbuck (an antelope) a "black deer."

The passenger pigeon deserves a serious book that includes the latest science. Glad it will get one.

Reid Farmer said...


There is lots of other bird bone present in the archaeological record, so this doesn't appear to be due to differential preservation. A food taboo is possible but hard to prove. I do know of a couple of instances from California that I can't explain other than by food taboos.