This is a story of a scarcely credible abundance, of flocks of birds so vast they made the sky invisible. It is also a story, almost as difficult to credit, of a collapse into extinction so startling to the inhabitants of the New World as to provoke a mystery. In the fate of the North American passenger pigeon we can read much of the story of wild America – the astonishment that accompanied its discovery, the allure of its natural 'productions', the ruthless exploitation of its 'commodities' and the ultimate betrayal of its peculiar genius. And in the bird's fate can be read, too, the essential vulnerability of species, the unpredictable passage of life itself.
John Wilson Foster was born and educated in Belfast. He won a scholarship to Queen's University where he read social anthropology, zoology, English and philosophy. As a postgraduate he studied aesthetics under the philosopher W.B. Gallie and the poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Oregon where he completed a Ph.D. in Irish literature. From 1974 until 2002 he was Professor of English at the University of British Columbia of which he is now professor emeritus. In 2001 he was National University of Ireland Professor at NUI, Maynooth. After early retirement he was a Leverhulme visiting professor to the U.K., visiting professor at the University of Toronto, and visiting fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
"The centenary year of the Great War also marks the death of a bird in Cincinnati Zoo. Named in honour of George Washington's wife, the 29-year-old "Martha" was the last passenger pigeon in existence. Once there had been between five and 10 billion of them, but when their habitat – the forests – were cut down, causing them to graze on crops, farmers opened fire and then professional hunters took over. Slaughter followed. Belfast academic and writer John Wilson Foster's masterful narrative is both cautionary tale and superb history writing. It is also an astute lament for the loss of an older, more noble America and, with it, a creature of great beauty."
– Eileen Battersby's non-fiction books of the year 2014
"John Wilson Foster's new book is a gem in every sense: small but perfect in the hand, elegantly written and full of evocative, deeply researched interest, both in the bird and American social history. Roaming in millions across the virgin forests of North America, sometimes blotting out the sky, the passenger pigeon belonged to a land – and its rivers and ocean – of an early and now seemingly incredible wild abundance, fatally eroded by servicing the spread of humankind."
– Michael Viney, Irish Times
"In his Pilgrims of the Air, Foster, a literary critic, writer, and birder, has produced one of the loveliest of literary meditations on the pigeon and its fate [...] in fluid, pleasing prose, Foster traces the commodification of wildlife in North America from the sixteenth century to the closing of the frontier and the extinction or near-extinction of such emblematic American creatures as the pigeon and the bison. The author ranges widely, impressively, across the earliest literature of exploration and conquest, smoothly integrating sources that a lesser writer might have been tempted to relegate to a chronological appendix."
– Rick Wright – Book Review Editor at Birding