The First Comprehensive Book on Passenger Pigeons in Over 50 Years


Author Joel Greenberg, shown beside his Passenger Pigeon specimen Heinrich.



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The first reviews are in:

Publisher's Weekly, September 30, 2013

“Greenberg pulls together a wealth of material from myriad sources to describe the life and death of this species, describing the majesty of millions flying overhead for hours as well as the horror of tens of thousands of birds being slaughtered while they nested . He also examines the larger lessons to be learned from such an ecological catastrophe—brought on by commercial exploitation and deforestations, among other causes—in this “planet’s sixth great episode of mass extinctions.” Greenberg has crafted a story that is both ennobling and fascinating.”

Library Journal , October 15, 2013

"As the centenary of the passenger pigeon's extinction nears, Greenberg offers this cautionary tale of the once most populous bird on earth. . . Greenberg's sifting of the historical record shows how a variety of factors—e.g., the use of the telegraph to report locations of immense nesting colonies to be pillaged, the completion of the eastern railroad network, complete habitat destruction—sealed the bird's fate. VERDICT The human folly depicted here is as deep as the pigeons were numerous, and the author's occasionally mordant comments on the grim events give the book an added charge, making his intended "teaching moment" certain. Highly recommended."

For more reviews of Joel's book, please see his web site, “Joel Greenberg's Natural History”:

Part of the Project Passenger Pigeon Centennial is:

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction(available from Amazon 1/7/2014)

AUTHOR: Joel Greenberg
(Previous books include A Natural History of the Chicago Region and Of Prairie, Woods, and Water)

Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 978-1-62-040535-2
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“The prodigious flights of these ‘millions of millions of birds’ have exhausted the numerical superlatives of the English tongue.” Albert Hazen Wright (1913)

In 1860 a flight of passenger pigeons that filled the skies for two days near Toronto likely exceeded one billion birds and maybe three billion. Just several decades later, a passenger pigeon that was to be named Martha, after President Washington’s wife, was born. Although her birth was not recorded, her death on September 1, 1914 was—because she was the very last passenger pigeon, the sole surviving member of an incredible species that once comprised 25 to 40% of North America’s birdlife. The grandeur that was the legions of her kin had died years before, leaving as their legacy both the growing impoverishment of a continent’s biological bounty and the challenge to prevent such extinctions in the future.

There is much that we do not know about Martha. Those in whose collections she resided failed to leave a detailed record of her early years. In all probability, she arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1902 and was progeny of a flock belonging to Professor Charles Otis Whitman of the University of Chicago.

Unlike the rapidly dwindling numbers of wild passenger pigeons, Martha spent all of her days in captivity, traveling only at the whim of Professor Whitman as he took his pigeon flock with him on trips between Chicago and Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Martha never felt the wind through her primaries as she kept her place in a river of birds crossing the autumnal sky. The cacophony of a million wings and crying squabs cutting through damp air heavy with pigeon musk was foreign to her experience. Whether she ever gorged on acorns seems unlikely, as gathering nuts would have required too much effort for her keepers to bother.

The story of how the most abundant bird to ever exist on this planet disappeared in so little time is unique in the annals of human experience. Not merely a footnote in history, this tale of profligate slaughter and the use and abuse of what was considered an infinite resource holds important lessons to those who reside in the early twentieth-first century.

As a lifelong birder and naturalist, I have a strong interest in how the flora and fauna of our continent have changed over time. In the old accounts, the passenger pigeon has a starring role. The story of this bird has intrigued me for decades, for there are elements that would strain credulity had there not been so many witnesses spanning three centuries and writing in at least five languages.

But this story is not just about Martha and her species. It is as much about people, from the Native Americans who shared their lands with the pigeon for roughly fifteen thousand years to the Europeans and their American and Canadian successors who subjected the birds to a slaughter that likely has not occurred before or since. A few individuals tried to curb the killing, but most of the effort on behalf of the species occurred well too late to save it.

For many who experienced passenger pigeons in life, the bird left an indelible mark on their consciousness. This includes those who were awed by what they saw, heard, felt, and smelled. A few felt sympathy for the birds, but vastly more joined in the killing. Artists have memorialized the species in novels, poetry, music (including an opera and a symphony), painting, and sculpture. Citizens have erected monuments to the species in at least three different states. Others noted the plants on which the birds fed and the places where they congregated, and named those entities after the pigeons. Epidemiologists have speculated on the long term effects on human health of the birds’ demise.

This is the first book about the passenger pigeon since a 1955 monograph and the first ever aimed at a general audience. For two and a half years, I have collected and studied the materials that make up the historical record of this species. I have visited libraries and collections in various parts of the country, and have talked with experts all over the United States and Canada. Even after immersing myself in the literature of the pigeon, I have difficulty grasping what their abundance would be like. The descriptions of the killing also strain comprehension.

These facts all lead to questions that will be explored in the book, if not answered, for the answers may never be known: How could a bird thriving by the billions become extinct so quickly? What prompted such a slaughter? Did anyone foresee the bird’s demise? Did anyone try to stop the tragedy that was about to occur? If the killing had stopped, could the passenger pigeon have survived to the present? What is to be learned from this bird’s extinction? Are there parallels to the passenger pigeon story going on today?

Joel Greenberg

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