Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: A Feathered River Across the Sky

This year represents a dark anniversary in annals of natural history as it marks the centenary of the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. Once darkening the skies for long hours at a time, flocks in the billions dominated the American landscape for hundreds of years. For many hunters and naturalists, the disappearance of the continent’s most numerous bird was simply unimaginable, and even after pigeon numbers dropped precipitously their extinction remained a remote-seeming, even ludicrous proposition to some.

The story of how this flagrant national tragedy unfolded is described in great detail in Joel Greenberg’s terrific new book, A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. Based on years of intensive scholarship, Greenberg traces how humans’ relationship with the species evolved over time, from early Native American customs, to European settlement, and how the advance of industrialization served to ever increase the efficiency with which pigeons were killed.

Many of the events described in the book are stomach-turning, and not necessarily because the details are particularly gory. Instead, it’s the mere fact of unrelenting slaughter of tens of millions of birds at a time; the profligacy and senselessness of killing so many more pigeons than could possibly be of any use to anyone. There are lessons in all of this for our continued stewardship of our natural resources, and Greenberg does a fine job of extending the story beyond 1914 to demonstrate how the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction led to the birth of a conservation ethic, and scores of laws designed to protect our remaining species.

There are few heroes in the story of the Passenger Pigeon, unfortunately, which makes people like Henry Bergh all the more compelling to learn about. Bergh founded the ASPCA in 1866 and fought tirelessly against all varieties of human cruelty to animals. His efforts of 20 years eventually led New York state to ban pigeon-shooting matches, passing legislation that became a model for other states to follow. He and several other figures stand in stark contrast to the prevailing sentiment toward Passenger Pigeons right up until the end, which was to shoot (or trap) without compunction, and seemingly reflexively.

The Passenger Pigeon is a marvel to consider. Migrating flocks that would take days pass overhead, and roosting groups so large and so concentrated that they would uproot trees, and devastate forests… these things are things that the imagination struggles to comprehend, and the likes of which we will never see again. Joel Greenberg’s book is a bit too detailed at times, but he succeeds wonderfully in conveying what it was like to have lived during this period, both in the sense of awe that they inspired, and in the destruction that humans wrought in the path to the pigeon’s ultimate extinction.

A Feathered River Across the Sky is an important book that brings all of the best and up-to-date scholarship on Passenger Pigeons together in one place. It’s a worthy tribute to mark the 100th anniversary of their extinction, and a poignant reminder of what we’ve lost.

No comments:

Post a Comment