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Welcome to the Pine River Review. Our sight is dedicated to our little homestead located along the Pine River tucked inside the Chippewa Nature Center's 1400 Acres of wild in Michigan's lower penninsula. We love to share our pictures, video, comment, and our own homespun music. Step inside our world as we celebrate this beautiful nook!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Who Mourns the Passenger Pigeon?

Consider the Mourning Dove, bane of every church steeple in North America and public square in Europe. Seventy million of their U.S. population are killed annually for target practice and food stuff. It doesn't seem to put a dent in their numbers and indeed as an endangered species they are considered "least at risk." These meek birds are thought to be a close genetic relation to the Passenger Pigeon. Unless you are over 97 years old it is unlikely you have ever seen a Passenger Pigeon as September 1, 1914 is when Martha, the last of her kind went belly up at the Cincinnati zoo, was frozen in a block of ice and shipped off to the Smithsonian where she was stuffed and this day rests in peace between the Roswell alien and the Arc of the Covenant in a warehouse in D.C.

    Some people doubt mankind's ability to much effect the overall condition of our ecosystem. They postulate that a world population of six billion people, who if standing shoulder to shoulder could fit inside the city limits of Los Angeles, has a negligible effect on Earth's systems. Personally I don't think these theorist are giving us enough credit.
    In the early 19th century the Passenger pigeon pictured on our left  flew in flocks, estimated on the conservative side, of a billion birds!
   Cotton Mather, a New England puritan minister who figured prominently in the Salem witch trials, recalled seeing migratory flocks a mile wide that took hours to pass overhead. Their groupings were the largest in the animal kingdom save locust swarms. This tendency to roost in numbers reaching the tens of millions and the fact that they gained popularity as America's first fast food became their undoing. In the early 1800's you could purchase Passenger Pigeons for a penny a piece and they became so popular as a cheap source of protein for the poor that they were shipped by the train loads to cities in the east. Oh the land of plenty!

        John James Audubon described a typical pigeon hunt thusly.
       "Few pigeons were then to be seen, but a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments on the borders. Two farmers from the vicinity of Russelsville, distant more than a hundred miles, had driven upwards of three hundred hogs to be fattened on the pigeons which were to be slaughtered. Here and there, the people employed in plucking and salting what had already been procured, were seen sitting in the midst of large piles of these birds. The dung lay several inches deep, covering the whole extent of the roosting-place."

 Besides feeding the flocks alcohol drenched grain and then smoking them out of the trees another method of attracting the hapless pigeons was to stitch a captured bird's eyes shut and let it flutter endlessly on the end of a stick that was attached to a spinning stool. Apparently the fluttering wings and furtive bleating lured the passersby to the killing fields and thus was born the stool pigeon.
        The last large flock was "harvested" just north of here in Petoskey Michigan in 1878. Tens of thousands of the pigeons were collected each day for five solid months. What wasn't known was the birds were dependant on their humongous numbers to practice communal breeding. They simply could not reproduce in small flocks in the wild or in captivity. A tipping point had been reached and soon there after it was over. Several billions of Passenger pigeons gone in a hundred year heartbeat.

Today scientists believe they may be able to recreate the Passenger pigeon by cloning them in some kind of Jurassic Park like escapade. But I am reminded more of a Twilight Zone episode called "How to Serve Man" where aliens come to earth and befriend mankind. The aliens inadvertently leave behind one of their textbook and the government immediately begins to decipher it. First the title is interpreted to mean "How to Serve Man" and everyone is relieved that the alien's intentions are peaceable. Only later is it discovered that "How to Serve Man" is a cook book!  Maybe what comes around goes around.
     There you have the whole brutal story in a nutshell. And still we wonder, can mankind effect the outcomes of Earth's vast systems? Is a few billion dead pigeons evidence of anything beyond one species playing an evolutionary trump card over another? Hmmm.
   Well, at least we don't need to speculate if the fellow on the left is appropriately known as a  Mourning Dove. That we know for sure.      

"I am sorry to say that there is too much point to the wisecrack that life is extinct on other planets because their scientists were more advanced than ours!"

                                                                    John F. Kennedy


  1. Gr8 read on this cold winters night, thanks Springman! As usual, Outstanding pix!

  2. You learn something new every day. Very interesting.

  3. The Dove is beautiful to the eyes, and I can learn from you.

  4. SO much is being said ironic is it that its the liberals that try to save what we have and the conservatives that try to take it away?
    One cant straddle the line anymore...its too important! Im always on the side of preserving, conserving, protecting Nature...without it whats our purpose-to consume and destroy? Dont think so...images of Soylent Green come to mind for a society that has lost its usefullness as are out there.

  5. Kind of a depressing read at first, but it does give one something to think about. Nice pics of the mourning dove. I like listening to their cooing in the morning hours. Its a soothing sound to my ears.

  6. Please, No depressions! I get these ideas, or musings if you will and I run with them. But I suppose there are some apocalyptic overtones to this piece. Dixxe's points about basing our choices as consumers using a "protectors" mentality is a valid one. We sure don't want to see Soylent Green on the menu! Gosh, all this from a couple of pigeon pictures. LOL. Right now we have a Twilight Zone episode, Jurassic Park, and Soylent Green references. That would be a pretty good night of TV watching though my favorite Charlton Heston movie is far and away The Planet of the Apes.

  7. Excellent post Springman.
    Proof, if needed, that the well will eventually run dry.

  8. Seventy million are killed annually for target practice?! We shall pay all we are doing to nature sooner than we think, I guess... It's a beautiful bird and it looks really gorgeous on top. Wonderful shots as usual, Springman.

  9. I was aware of the demise of the Passenger Pigeon without knowing all the details. Many thanks for a very informative and well written post plus lovely images of a beautiful Dove.

  10. Hi Springman. Good post. As far as I know Mourning Doves are not hunted here. But I have real trouble with hunting. I can't imagine any thrill to it unless you're pretty sick. Good photos. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River.

  11. The inexplicable and inexcusable arrogance of man... Thank you for this stirring homage to the vanished plumage of the passenger pigeon.

    Perhaps we could also pause to remember the Dodo, which once flourished on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, gone forever, too slow to outrun his hungry pursuers, sadly flightless as well.

    And also the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. I still have a copy of an essay I came across some 20 years ago, I believe it first appeared in Outside or Outdoor magazine, the title was "My Name Is Orange Band". I just did a quick search and didn't come up with the full article, although it may be out there somewhere, but several sites I found quoted from it. If you can find it, it is powerful reading. One site I found said this about it...

    "Goodbye Dusky Seaside Sparrow

    Robert James Waller wrote eloquently about the death of the last Dusky Seaside Sparrow in "My name is Orange Band." Here's an excerpt:

    (Orange Band was) "the last member of the rarest species known to us. He became blind in one eye, became old for a sparrow, and yet he persisted as if he knew his sole task was to sustain the bloodline as long as possible. I wondered if he felt sorrow or excruciating panic at the thought of his oneness. On June 18, 1987, a Washington Post headline said 'Goodby Dusky Seaside Sparrow.' Orange Band, blind in one eye, old and alone, was gone.

    But the day Orange Band died there was a faint sound out there in the universe, hardly noticeable unless you were expecting it and listening. It was a small cry, the last one, that arched upward from a cage in Florida. If you were listening closely though, you could hear it. 'I am zero.' Extinct. The sound of the word is like the single blow of a hammer on cold steel. And, each day, the hammer falls again as another species becomes extinct due to human activity."

    From Old Songs in a New Cafe, "My Name is Orange Band," by Robert James Waller, Warner Books, 1995."

  12. "Goodbye Dusky Seaside Sparrow"
    What a wonderful phrase dressed in the timeless rhythm of the sonnet. I can not stop saying it.
    That is enough for me and I have Robert James Waller's "Old Songs in a new Cafe" on its way to my home. Thank You Owen for the tip and I'll look forward to a extraordinary read.
    To tell you the truth the more I focus on these issues and involve myself in photographing the wild the more confused I get about man's place and participation in the mix of it. That confusion is endlessly intriguing to me!

  13. It's very sad that some of our newest members of Congress don't believe in global climate change and want to 'disprove' it.
    I fear this is going to be a bad year for the planet...

  14. A thought-provoking post (you are "preaching to the choir" in my case, but it is good to be reminded.) Sad to say, I must agree with Dave's comment above. We are in scary times.

    I met birders when we stayed in Texas Gulf country (Port Aransas) who remembered in their childhood seeing flocks of migrating song birds that darkened the sky (not passengar pigeons -- I'm old, but not THAT old)...but just normal song birds. That area in TX still has an enormous # of migrating birds (both pathways cross there), but nothing like that.

    I always come back to wondering what we as ordinary people can do.

  15. Mourning Doves are Bird #1 on my life list. One nested in the roof overhand above my bedroom window. My 4th grad teacher had us do mosaic with seeds, etc.., and I did a mourning dove. She loved how I laid each seed in order to make it just like 'my bird.' Thanks for the lovely pics.

  16. Nice article and very thought provoking.
    We have lots of Mourning Doves here. I like to listen to their calls. They sound like Owls and they like the waterfall by my pond. Sweet birds. MB

  17. I'm a fan of the peaceful mourning doves that live in the cedar hedge behind my house.

    Lots to think about in this post!

  18. Today we still have a tug of war between those who would advance the preservation of habitat and those who would advance the creation of wealth.

  19. I think a good place for "regular people" to make a difference is to share your appreciation for nature and your sense of the wild with others. I know I was shocked at the fascinating diversity of the local wild life when I moved to The Pine River and I was a grown man. I don't think you can love nature without knowing it, we need to spark that curiosity in the people we know especially children.

  20. it's so sad, the passenger pigeon is just one of many extinct birds, and most of them pushed that way by our activities. It's also a reminder that we get used to what is around us, our grandparents saw thousands of a particular species, our parents saw 100s and that became the new normal and we see dozens, what will the next generation see? Lovely photos of the mounring dove by the way.

  21. Lovely post! In Malaysia, where I come from, people love keeping birds like these as pets and in some states there are competitions where people see whose bird can "sing" the nicest.

  22. I felt buoyed by your beautiful photos of the mourning dove, but found it heart wrenching to read about the wanton destruction of the Passenger Pigeon. Also, remembering the extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, these are stark reminders not to take the multitude of species that exist today for granted. We need to get involved in conservation. It's so easy to feel helpless, to let things happen, to lose interest quickly, until it's too late.