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The Passenger Pigeon

The Passenger Pigeon

Errol Fuller
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    The Passenger Pigeon
    Book Description:

    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 Pigeonfeatures rare archival images as well as haunting photos of live birds.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5220-8
    Subjects: Zoology, Biological Sciences, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-5)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 6-6)
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 7-8)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 9-9)

    The story of the Passenger Pigeon reads like a work of fiction. At the start of the nineteenth century these birds existed in unimaginable numbers – billions upon billions. The species may have made up as much as 40 percent of the bird population of North America. It may even have been the most numerous bird species on the planet. The flocks were so large and so dense they blackened skies, blotted out the sun. But by the century’s end it was over; the birds were gone from the wild. North America’s commonest bird had simply vanished. By the year...

  5. Introduction
    (pp. 10-11)

    This work is not intended as a textbook or a detailed monograph covering every aspect of Passenger Pigeon research and every known piece of information about the species. Anyone requiring this might profitably consult the works by William Mershon (1907), Arlie Schorger (1955), or Joel Greenberg (2014). The present book is simply a celebration (perhaps an inappropriate term in the circumstances), in both words and pictures, of the former existence of the Passenger Pigeon, produced around the time of the 100th anniversary of the death of the last known individual. It is hoped that it will serve as an intriguing...

  6. The Annals of Extinction
    (pp. 12-19)

    All six of the species illustrated on the two previous pages – the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Carolina Parakeet, the Heath Hen, and the Eskimo Curlew – were once inhabitants of North America. In the places they chose to live they were plentiful. All, with the possible exception of the Labrador Duck, were common when Europeans first arrived in the Americas. Two – the Labrador Duck and the Great Auk – became extinct during the nineteenth century; the others managed to live on into the twentieth. Today the status of all six is the same:...

  7. Imagine
    (pp. 20-27)

    Imagine it is some time early in the nineteenth century. We can pick out any year, it really doesn’t matter. So let us make it 1810. And let us suppose that you, the reader, have hewn from the wilderness a small area of land. Gradually, you have tamed and cultivated it, and now you are enjoying the fruits of season after season of hard work. You grow enough food, and rear enough livestock, to feed your growing family. There is even a surplus with which you can supply the fast-increasing local community.

    The scene could be anywhere in the eastern...

  8. The Bird (Ectopistes migratorius)
    (pp. 28-47)

    So much was written about the Passenger Pigeon during the years when it was a living bird that it is easy to assemble and summarize basic ornithological information about the species. Yet despite the wealth of written evidence, there are still questions about certain aspects. Did the birds regularly lay one egg or two? Did they nest just once in a given year, or did they reproduce multiple times? Did their vast numbers protect them in some way against the predatory assaults of other species? Different accounts provide varying answers for these and other mysteries. Perhaps essentially unresolvable questions are...

  9. The Dowward Spiral
    (pp. 48-69)

    The first European to make any written comment on the Passenger Pigeon was a French explorer by the name of Jacques Cartier (1491 - 1557), who made a note of them on July 1, 1534. Cartier is widely credited with having claimed Canada for the French and, perhaps because he had weightier things on his mind, his written account is brief and reveals little. It was soon followed by the observations of other writers, however, some of whom were well-known historical figures, Samuel de Champlain (1567 - 1635) and Cotton Mather (1663 - 1728) among them.

    Most of the descriptions...

  10. Extinction: The Causes
    (pp. 70-89)

    There need be no doubt that when Europeans began to colonize North America the invasion spelled ultimate doom for the Passenger Pigeon. Final destruction took many, many years, and for much of this time such an outcome may have seemed inconceivable, but it was inevitable. The collision between technological man and Passenger Pigeon was one the pigeons could neither avoid nor benefit from. Their own habits left them entirely vulnerable to the depredations of men with the will and capability to profit from their slaughter and from the destruction of the habitats the birds needed in order to survive.


  11. The Last Captives
    (pp. 90-109)

    The tale of the captive birds is mostly a grim one. The majority of captured individuals were taken (and then kept alive) for specific purposes, and those purposes were usually horrific. They were to be used either as stool pigeons or other kinds of decoys, or else they were kept alive until the day (usually one not far off) when they could be killed to provide fresh meat.

    A few individuals were more fortunate and took a place in aviaries and zoos, but as the species was so common for so long, these captives aroused little interest. Few records were...

  12. Martha
    (pp. 110-121)

    There is no doubt that from all the billions of Passenger Pigeons that ever lived, only one has achieved any kind of individual identity. And she is Martha. The rest form just a great horde, a massive homogeneous block that once existed, but exist no longer.

    Yet even Martha is an enigma. All that is really known about her is that she lived and died, that her death occurred in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, that her stuffed remains are now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and that she was probably the very last of her kind. Those...

  13. Art and Books
    (pp. 122-147)

    Of all the many existing images of the Passenger Pigeon, by far the most famous, and the one most regularly reproduced, is the picture created by John James Audubon. It was engraved as an aquatint and colored by hand, and used to illustrate Audubon’s great masterpieceThe Birds of America(1827 - 1838), now the most valuable of all illustrated books. The print was based on a watercolor that is owned by the New-York Historical Society. There is good reason for its popularity. It is quite simply a graphic image of the highest order, with an immediacy that strikes instant...

  14. Quotations
    (pp. 148-161)

    The following quotations are from the writings of historical figures (many of them well known) who saw Passenger Pigeons in life.

    With more than 450 books and pamphlets to his name, Cotton Mather was one of the most influential of America’s early religious leaders, and is probably the best known of all Puritan clergymen. His interests were varied, and Passenger Pigeons were among many diverse matters that caught his attention. Mather submitted several ornithological writings to the Royal Society of London (apparently in 1712 and 1716), but these did not receive full publication and remained for many years in manuscript...

  15. Appendix: A Magnificent Flying Machine: The Anatomy of the Passenger Pigeon
    (pp. 162-169)
    Julian Pender Hume
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 170-171)
  17. Further Reading
    (pp. 172-174)
  18. Index
    (pp. 175-178)