At the start of the nineteenth century, Passenger Pigeons were perhaps the most abundant birds on the planet, numbering literally in the billions. The flocks were so large and so dense that they blackened the skies, even blotting out the sun for days at a stretch. Yet by the end of the century, the most common bird in North America had vanished from the wild. In 1914, the last known representative of her species, Martha, died in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo.
This stunningly illustrated book tells the astonishing story of North America's Passenger Pigeon, a bird species that – like the Tyrannosaur, the Mammoth, and the Dodo – has become one of the great icons of extinction. Errol Fuller describes how these fast, agile, and handsomely plumaged birds were immortalized by the ornithologist and painter John James Audubon, and captured the imagination of writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain. He shows how widespread deforestation, the demand for cheap and plentiful pigeon meat, and the indiscriminate killing of Passenger Pigeons for sport led to their catastrophic decline. Fuller provides an evocative memorial to a bird species that was once so important to the ecology of North America, and reminds us of just how fragile the natural world can be.
Published in the centennial year of Martha's death, The Passenger Pigeon features rare archival images as well as haunting photos of live birds.
"[...] easy to read and thought-provoking, and will be of interest to anyone concerned about conservation today. Although much progress has been made in the intervening century, our actions continue to threaten wildlife, and this story reminds us that even common species may not be safe from the effects of human activity."
- Ian Woodward, BTO book reviews
"[...] The Passenger Pigeon is an excellent introduction to this bird, what made it so special, and the tragedy of its extinction. If you want to learn about the Passenger Pigeon, or just enjoy the art and photographs, then I’d highly recommend it. Afterward, if you’d like to delve deeper into the subject, you can continue with A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction."
- Grant McCreary (28-10-2014), read the full review at The Birder's Library
In the early nineteenth century 25 to 40 percent of North America's...
From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction...
The annals of extinction 12
The bird 28
The downward spiral 48
Extinction: the causes 70
The last captives 90
Art and books 122
Appendix: a magnificent flying machine 162
Further reading 172
In case you did not notice, Monday 1 September 2014 was the centenary of the death of Martha, a Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius living in a cage within Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio, USA. If, indeed, you have not noticed the passing of this event, you must have been very preoccupied because it has resulted in the publication of several books, and around the world it has been reported in numerous articles and broadcasts. Martha was the last Passenger Pigeon to survive, despite the species having once been North America’s commonest bird. Her body has been out of view for some time, but thankfully the Smithsonian Institution has put her back on display once again – and quite right too!
This book provides an overview of everything one might want to know about the Passenger Pigeon. There are other books that give a lot more detail about the species but the author mixes together an interesting selection of images with quotations from those interviewed about the species’ decline.
By the 1950s it was already clear that the Passenger Pigeon was declining, and measures were being sought to protect it. For many years these birds were shot in their thousands, and few people worried about this because it is said that flocks numbered millions. In the end it was probably a mixture of over-hunting and deforestation that caused numbers to decline to worrying levels. It is also said that once numbers were at a low level the species’ gene pool was insufficient to allow the birds to rebuild their numbers.
Much has been written about Martha – as she was the last survivor. However few people remember George – the last male to live. He died in 1910, and sealed the species’ fate. The author has sourced many photographs and other Passenger Pigeons that were kept in captivity. He has also gathered together in one place many paintings of Passenger Pigeons. A chapter explores the way that we have celebrated Passenger Pigeons in art – including the enormous mural that was recently erected on the side of a building in Cincinnati.
An interesting appendix by Julian Pender Hume describes the anatomy of the species, demonstrating that it was in fact a very strong flier. It underlines even further that despite being superbly adapted for its lifestyle of mass movement, the Passenger Pigeon could not survive against all odds.
Errol Fuller is an acclaimed artist and writer, and a world authority on bird and animal extinction. His many books include Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, Extinct Birds, and Dodo: From Extinction to Icon.