For the Birds Radio Program: Passenger Pigeon
Is it possible to hunt a species to extinction?
(Recording of a Mourning Dove)
When I was in the Duluth Public Library a few weeks ago, I chanced upon a book about the Passenger Pigeon by William B. Mershon, which was published in 1907, at a time when people were finally beginning to realize that the Passenger Pigeon was all but extinct in the wild. Not one of these blue meteors was collected after 1898. The very last report of a sighting, made the same year that the book was published, was by President Theodore Roosevelt, who saw what he believed to be a small flock of pigeons at Pine Knot, Maryland. The last Passenger Pigeon to survive in captivity, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1917.
Mershon’s book is a collection of essays and reports about this exquisite bird. One chapter was written by Chief Simon Pokagon, the last Pottawattomie chief of the Pokagon Band, who watched his people as well as the great pigeon fall to the insatiable greed of white men. He wrote, “It was proverbial with our fathers that if the Great Spirit in His wisdom could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form, and movement, He never did. When a young man I have stood for hours admiring the movements of these birds. I have seen them fly in unbroken lines from the horizon, one line succeeding another from morning until night, moving their unbroken columns like an army of trained soldiers pushing to the front, while detached bodies of these birds appeared in different parts of the heavens, pressing forward in haste like raw recruits preparing for battle. At other times I have seen them move in one unbroken column for hours across the sky, like some great river, ever varying in hue; and as the mighty stream, sweeping on at sixty miles an hour, reached some deep valley, it would pour its living mass headlong down hundreds of feet, sounding as though a whirlwind was abroad in the land. I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America and regarded the descending torrents in wonder and astonishment, yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”
Pokagon describes with shock the techniques market hunters and sporting clubs used to take hundreds of thousands, and even millions, of pigeons in a single day. He concludes, “I would most prayerfully ask in the name of Him who suffers not a sparrow to fall unnoticed, what must be the nature of the crime and degree of punishment awaiting our white neighbors who have so wantonly butchered and driven from our forests these wild pigeons, the most beautiful flowers of the animal creation of North America.”
It’s pleasant to think that we have come so far in the past 72 years that we would never again drive a whole species to the edge of extinction—well, except of course for the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, which fell over the precipice on June 16, 1987…and also the California Condor, which is gone except for a handful of birds surviving in zoos…and, the Spotted Owl, which has the misfortune to require valuable ancient forests for its home. Duck species are steadily and dangerously declining, but licensed hunters continue to slaughter them–it’s in the name of sport rather than market hunting nowadays, so they hunt unchallenged. Here in Minnesota unlicensed hunters are allowed to kill crows and blackbirds without limit during the nesting season—a frightening return to the ethic that doomed the most beautiful pigeon of all.
When I looked into the sky last night, a soft breeze brushed my face like a sigh, and I saw Chief Pokagon himself in the night sky, his tears glistening like stars in the Milky Way. He was weeping for his beloved “O-me-me-wog,” and he would not be comforted, because they were no more.
(Recording of a Mourning Dove)
This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”