Friday, August 1, 2014

On a Lesson from a Pigeon

Though the species vanished a century ago, passenger pigeons are hot. Essays, books, films, museum exhibits, and art installations are commemorating the demise of a bird that once darkened North American skies, many heralding their extinction as an object lesson on how even abundant wildlife can wink out if conservationists fail to act in time.
The essential hub for heuristic memorialization of Ectopistes migratorius is Project Passenger Pigeon. Website visitors can explore the animals’ taxonomic relationships, ecological needs, and the surprising role of transportation technology in their extermination. Testimonials from novelists, filmmakers, poets, and scientists reveal how a defunct creature can continue to inspire creativity and stimulate research. Perhaps most satisfying, the site provides resources and tools that help everyone get involved in telling the birds’ story, from downloadable PowerPoint presentations and exhibit posters to available speakers, children’s activity suggestions, and an origami tutorial so groups can fold their own paper flocks. And please consider contributing to all these efforts by donating to the project in general or the forthcoming film, ”From Billions to None.”
Yet Project Passenger Pigeon is only the leading edge of the honorific wave. There’s a children’s book, Passenger Pigeons: Gone Forever by Vic Eichler, a once-there-were-billions>Smithsonian exhibit (“Once There Were Billions” at the Natural History Museum), and articles in Audubon,Living Bird,and the Guardian, to name a few. Many of the pieces at least mention efforts to revive the species through genetic engineering, as discussed in a TED talk by researcher Ben Novak, ”How to Bring Passenger Pigeons All the Way Back.” To Novak and others, re-creating the species could help revive not only their forest ecosystems but also our dwindling faith in human benevolence. Books also abound that tell the birds’ tragic extinction tale, including Elizabeth Kolbert’s riveting best-seller, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and the moving elegy to multiple avian lossesHope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, by Christopher Cokinos. But for those who want to delve deeply into the historical and cultural relationships between pigeons and people, the authoritative work is Joel Greenberg’s A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Greenberg’s decades of dedication to unraveling ecological and cultural mysteries (photos of the birds, living or dead, remain elusive) enables him to explain the here-to-for inexplicable destruction of such a vast population in only about 40 years.
Too often, the details provided are sickening—the scale and techniques of harvesting adults and squabs are unfathomable unless perhaps you’ve witnessed industrial fishing. But gloom is relieved by contemporary naturalists’ accounts of the breathtaking flocks and stories of quirky and inspiring characters such as Etta Wilson, whose regret over childhood complicity in pigeon hunting led to a distinguished career in ornithology. Even if you lack the time to absorb the whole book, you’ll want to listen to the author talk here about flights that once blocked out the sun for days and the message they’ve left for future conservationists.
But most agree that the finest tribute was penned in 1946 by eminent ecologist Aldo Leopold. “We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds,” wrote Leopold in an essay that graces his classic work, A Sand County Almanac. “On a Monument to a Pigeon” encapsulates the many worthy, more recent arguments online and in print seeking to link the cavalier demolition of one species with our accelerating assault on the whole planet. The last word on passenger pigeons and what they mean to us today still belongs to Leopold: "Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot alre also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry we bring us more comforts than pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?”

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