Remembering a feathered river across the sky


Sometimes there are anniversaries that we should remember but not celebrate. This month marks such an occasion: A hundred years ago this September, Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. 

On the Midwestern frontier, billions of the birds had once gathered, so many they formed “a feathered river across the sky.” By 1914, an industrializing America had killed them off. The skies had emptied; the winged river had dried up.

At one time, passenger pigeons may have accounted for 25 to 40 percent of all bird life in America. Along the Ohio River, bird expert John James Audubon witnessed one flight of pigeons that covered the sun for three days. For early 19th century farmers, however, passenger pigeons could spell disaster if they descended upon crops of corn, wheat or other field grains.

In 1823, in upstate New York, a single colony of nesting passenger pigeons could cover 180 square miles. When they settled on trees, the sheer weight of so many birds sometimes snapped off branches.  But because of their numbers, passenger pigeons also sustained hungry settlers on the Midwestern frontier, who could snatch an easy meal by knocking the birds off their roosts with long sticks.

Joel Greenberg has written about the passenger pigeon in his new book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (2014). He chronicles the shift from the passenger pigeon as a nuisance to a delicacy in New York City, where the social elite dined on “an amazingly rich dish of boned pigeons stuffed with foie gras and truffles.”    

As demand for the pigeons increased, hunters found a ready market. From Shelby, Michigan, in 1874, commercial hunters shipped 900,000 pigeons in barrels. As the pigeon population plummeted, ornithologists and conservationists took note. My hero, Republican president and wilderness warrior Theodore Roosevelt, may have had one of the last documented sightings of the birds in the wild on May 18, 1907, at his Virginia cabin. Four years earlier, Roosevelt had established the first national wildlife refuge, though for the passenger pigeon, it came too late.

But if there were ecological failures, there were also successes. Extinction of the passenger pigeon helped spur a nascent conservation movement in the early 1900s, and by 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act to preserve and protect the nation’s rich legacy of flora and fauna.

As a historian, I lead river trips on the Green and Yampa rivers through Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, and I always insist that we stop at Steamboat Rock in Echo Park. There, in 1976, one of the last breeding pairs of peregrine falcons was found high atop the rock. Working with Colorado State University, the National Park Service sent expert climbers to rappel down the sheer rock face. After the climbers captured precious eggs, the eggs were flown by helicopter to Colorado State University for incubation.

The falcons responded by double clutching, laying additional eggs. The climbers then came back and took those eggs, repeating the process, so what was left of wild raptor genetics could be retained.

Imagine the consternation of the falcon parents when, after repeatedly stealing their eggs, the researchers unexpectedly returned with young fledgling falcons -- teenagers really -- who started squawking and demanding food and attention.

Through extraordinary efforts like that, the peregrine falcon was saved in the West in its natural habitat, and now, peregrines thrive in Colorado at Dinosaur National Monument, at Chimney Rocks National Monument, and at Lake Powell. We’ve done well with birds on the whole, though not so with fish.

Big dams on the Colorado River system pose serious threats to the Colorado pikeminnow, the bonytail chub, and the razorback sucker. The humpbacked chub, which looks like a small submarine, has only two spawning bars left. One is named Cleopatra’s Couch on the Yampa River; the other is on the Green River in Desolation and Gray canyons.

Two decades ago on a summer evening while spin casting for trout in the Colorado River, I caught a bonytail chub at dusk. Briefly, I held this endangered fish in my hands. I let it slip away in the shoals as dark descended, marveling at the genetic magic I had just encountered.

The centennial of the extinction of passenger pigeons is a perfect time to think about our role as humans on this spinning blue-green marble we call Earth.  As John Sawhill of The Nature Conservancy said, “In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.”

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, [email protected]

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