Project Passenger Pigeon

Lessons from the Past for a Sustainable Future


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Flights of Fancy

Why I Chose the Mysterious Passenger Pigeon

Sherrida Woodley

After having written the novel Quick Fall of Light (Gray Dog Press, 2010), I’ve been asked many times why I chose the passenger pigeon as the mysterious bird in the book. Extinct for almost 100 years, most people had never heard of it (often confusing it with the carrier pigeon). The passenger actually became my choice of birds to provide mankind with a much-needed anti-virus for a modern-day bird flu pandemic not because of its wide popularity, but because of its curious die-out just before the 1918 flu. I knew the coincidence might lend credibility to the story of a world advanced in technology but witnessing devastation in unlikely numbers, this time of humanity. Now almost two years after publication, many readers have agreed. This was the bird to bring back from extinction, at least for this story.

Introduction to the passenger pigeon came mostly from author Christopher Cokinos’ accounting in Hope is the Thing with Feathers. His description of the species and its vanishing is still some of the best I’ve ever read, and I often return to his work when I feel the need to reacquaint myself with its history. The anguish of its story never fails to impact me. The passenger pigeon might’ve been a niche species programmed to die out when the ideal environmental conditions around it began to crumble, but the fact remains that man, particularly at that point in American history, was on a frenzy to clear the land of troublesome creatures. It’s no accident that the buffalo and passenger were running a close tie for who would disappear first. The telegraph and railroad were instrumental in the downfall of each. The ghastly tolls extracted by man were almost mirror images.

My love of the passenger pigeon grew as I wrote of a colony’s incredible survival in a barn in Nebraska and its ultimate surrender to a medical laboratory in the Olympic Rain Forest of Washington State one hundred years later. This was all possible through the care taking of a single man committed to saving the species, a man who passed the torch on to his son, Curtis. His comments throughout the story give us clues as to how he managed the passengers right up to the time the world’s desperation for an anti-virus puts the small colony of birds at risk of extinction all over again. The novel is speculative fiction but was designed around a basic question: If we had a chance to do it all over again, would we still lose this particular bird to our own greed?

Thank you for the opportunity to be part of Project Passenger Pigeon and to re-visit this beautiful species all over again. More than once I’ve longed to see a flock, even a small one, take wing out here over Eastern Washington. Not likely. But now, there’s a project in the works to bring the passenger pigeon back to us in a rare glimpse of science and art combined. I’m so honored to be a part of this loving tribute to a bird unlike any other in American history.

Sherrida Woodley is the author of Quick Fall of Light (Gray Dog Press, 2010) who lives in Spokane, Washington and is heavily involved in the fifty-year anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring.

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