Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Last Passenger Pigeon

Gene Stratton-Porter (1863–1924)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

“Winter Sport in Northern Louisiana — Hunting Wild Pigeons” Hand-colored engraving by American illustrator Smith W. Bennett (1846–1907). From the July 3, 1875, issue of The Illustrated Shooting and Dramatic News. Via Wikimedia Commons
Two centuries ago, in 1823, James Fenimore Cooper published The Pioneers, the first of the five novels known as The Leatherstocking Tales. In one of the book’s most memorable passages Natty Bumppo—the main character also known as Leatherstocking, Deerslayer, Pathfinder, and Hawkeye—witnesses the entire town of Templeton gathering to assault an incoming flock of passenger pigeons:
So prodigious was the number of the birds, that the scattering fire of the guns, with the hurling of missiles, and the cries of the boys, had no other effect than to break off small flocks from the immense masses that continued to dart along the valley, as if the whole of the feathered tribe were pouring through that one pass. None pretended to collect the game, which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion as to cover the very ground with fluttering victims.

Leather-stocking was a silent, but uneasy spectator of all these proceedings, but was able to keep his sentiments to himself until he saw the introduction of the swivel into the sports.

“This comes of settling a country!” he said—“here have I known the pigeon to fly for forty long years, and, till you made your clearings, there was nobody to skear or to hurt them. I loved to see them come into the woods, for they were company to a body, hurting nothing; being, as it was, as harmless as a garter-snake. But now it gives me some thoughts when I hear the frighty things whizzing through the air, for I know it’s only a motion to bring out all the brats of the village. Well! the Lord won’t see the waste of his creaters for nothing, and right will be done to the pigeons, as well as others, by-and-by. . . .”
The carnage resumed when a second flock of birds flew toward the town later in the day:
Some millions of pigeons were supposed to have already passed, that morning, over the valley of Templeton; but nothing like the flock that was now approaching had been seen before. It extended from mountain to mountain in one solid blue mass, and the eye looked in vain over the southern hills to find its termination. The front of this living column was distinctly marked by a line but very slightly indented, so regular and even was the flight.
By then, Natty had left the scene in disgust, carrying the single bird he had shot down for his supper. The rest of the townsfolk, with muskets and cannon, fired upon the flock until Judge Marmaduke Temple, the town’s founder, regretfully looked over the field and said, “I see nothing but eyes, in every direction, as the innocent sufferers turn their heads in terror. Full one-half of those that have fallen are yet alive; and I think it is time to end the sport, if sport it be.”

Simon Pokagon, a chief of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, recalled his own sighting of a flock of passenger pigeons a quarter century after the publication of The Pioneers:
About the middle of May, 1850, while in the fur trade, I was camping on the head waters of the Manistee River in Michigan. One morning on leaving my wigwam I was startled by hearing a gurgling, rumbling sound as though an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me. As I listened more intently I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear calm and beautiful. Nearer and nearer came the strange commingling sounds of sleigh bells, mixed with the rumbling of an approaching storm. While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season. They passed like a cloud through the branches of the high trees, through the underbrush and over the ground, apparently overturning every leaf. Statue-like I stood, half-concealed by cedar boughs. They fluttered all about me, lighting on my head and shoulders; gently I caught two in my hands and carefully concealed them under my blanket. (“The Wild Pigeon of North America,” The Chautauquan, November 1895)
Cooper’s and Pokagon’s effusive descriptions of the flocks are supported by similar observations throughout the 1800s. “The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse,” John James Audubon wrote in his Ornithological Biography early in the century. “Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.” John Muir recalled in the memoir The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, “I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray.” In 1871 naturalists estimated that one nesting area in Wisconsin measured 850 square miles and contained more than 130 million pigeons.

In the late 1870s, the future best-selling novelist and nature writer Gene Stratton-Porter was still in her teens, the youngest of twelve siblings on a prosperous Indiana farm run by a prominent Methodist preacher and his wife. By then, frequent sightings of million-bird flocks were a thing of the recent past, but the birds were still abundant enough for her neighbors to bag several dozen at a time. Members of the Stratton family, however, were prohibited from hunting the species by their father, who regarded both wild pigeons and doves fondly for religious and aesthetic reasons and who was troubled by their diminishing numbers.

If we fast forward one final quarter century, to 1902, we find that the last pigeon shot in the wild is believed to have been brought down by a hunter 150 miles south of the Stratton farm, in Laurel, Indiana, according to records uncovered by Joel Greenberg while conducting research for his 2014 book A Feathered River Across the Sky. Better known to many readers is the fate of George and Martha, the last two passenger pigeons, both of which Stratton-Porter saw at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1910. George died two years later, and the national headlines created by Martha’s demise, on September 1, 1914, marked both the extinction of the species that used to number in the billions and the fulfillment of Natty Bumppo’s forewarning of the long-term consequences of his neighbors’ “wasty ways.” “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun,” Aldo Leopold wrote in 1947 for the creation of a monument to the species in Wisconsin. “In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.”

Gene Stratton-Porter gathered her memories of the pigeons for an article published in Good Housekeeping in August 1924, ten years after the death of Martha—and twelve years after her final sighting of what she believes might have been a lone passenger pigeon in the wild. We present it here as our Story of the Week, with a brief headnote by Bill McKibben on Stratton-Porter’s distinctive literary career.

Note: From 1895 to 1913, Stratton-Porter lived adjacent to Indiana’s 13,000-acre Limberlost Swamp, which served as the setting for several of her books. During this period, the swamp was drained for agricultural development and she unsuccessfully lobbied against the destruction of the area and its bountiful wildlife and flora.

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The farm on which I lived as a child was one of the most beautiful at that time that I ever have seen. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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