Book Review: A Feathered River Across the Sky

Yesterday, I posted a video highlighting the effects that a single species can have on an entire ecosystem. When we turn our attention to Passenger Pigeons, we are talking about a species that numbered in the billions, whose flocks would take hours to pass to location while spreading in all directions as far as the eye could see.  I thought I knew the sad story of the American native Passenger Pigeon, but reading Greenberg’s A Feathered River Across the Sky showed me that I only knew the bare basics.

How does one contemplate the ecological effects of a species that was the most numerous bird ever known?  Whose passage stripped the ground of mast like acorns and nuts?  Whose nesting events destroyed entire square miles of forest by the sheer weight of their numbers?  Mr. Greenberg doesn’t say it, but I kept imagining the ecological effects of the Passenger Pigeon to be like those of a tornado, forest fire, flood or hurricane: an event that destroys mature forests while opening them up to new life for the pioneer species and the animals that feed upon them.

I keep trying to imagine what it would be like to have them today, but there I fail: modern society would never allow Passenger Pigeons to thrive in the flock numbers they needed for their survival.  If your house or land was unlucky enough to be chosen for pigeon rejuvenation, imagine the personal upset and indignant responses of insurances companies that they don’t cover natural disasters.  Imagine the flocks of lobbyists pleading that the pigeons’ numbers must be reduced for the sake of “feeding the children” on monocultured agricultural land.  Imagine deadly pigeon bait sold in every big box home improvement store… if indeed any pigeons were left.

The Passenger Pigeons were driven to extinction by settler-induced habitat loss and overhunting — and the technological advances that permitted “pigeon” to become a normal dietary item in the farthest and most urban cities.  While today’s hunters have an ethical system that prevents hunting an animal to extinction, you only need to ask the Dodo, the Auk and numerous species’ of tortoises if that ethical system was in place before the 20th century.  Like these, the Passenger Pigeon was apparently very tasty and a great source of food even before the Europeans arrived.  The aboriginal tribes of North America certainly availed themselves of this great resource, but did not over exploit it.

Mr. Greenberg’s book is a grim recounting of gruesome overhunting and exploitation.  So grim, that I found myself skipping pages of his painstaking research, because the sheer scale of the slaughter is almost incomprehensible to me.  But when the world has lost almost half it’s wildlife in the past 40 years, and we require 1 1/2 Earths to sustain our resource usage today it’s a grim story being repeated all over the world, even as you read this sentence.

Quick solutions?  I have none.  But if you don’t know the history of the Passenger Pigeon, Mr. Greenberg’s book is a good place to start learning.