A Feathered River Across the Sky

  • by Joel Greenberg
  • Narrated by Andy Caploe
  • 11 hrs and 17 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

In the early 19th century passenger pigeons accounted for 25 to 40 percent of North America’s birds, traveling in flocks so massive as to block out the sun for hours. Although adults weighed only twelve ounces, they nested and roosted in the millions, destroying large oaks as if hit by hurricanes. Their favorite foods were the seeds and nuts of beech, chestnuts, and other forest trees, but they also raided farmers’ buckwheat, wheat, corn, and rye crops.
John James Audubon, remarking on their speed and agility in flight, said a lone passenger pigeon streaking through the forest “passes like a thought.” The observation was prophetic, for although a billion pigeons streamed over Toronto in May of 1860, a mere forty years later passenger pigeons were almost extinct. Martha, the last of the species, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.
Their congregation in large numbers made it easy to kill them en masse, and the expansion of railroads and telegraph lines facilitated large hunting parties that supplied pigeons by the thousands to help feed people in growing cities. Audubon, novelist Gene Stratton-Porter, and James Fenimore Cooper were among those who advocated saving the passenger pigeon, but it was too late. Naturalist Joel Greenberg’s beautifully written story of the passenger pigeon provides a cautionary tale that no matter how abundant a resource is - animals, water or oil - it can be wiped out if we are not careful.

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Humans With the Sympathy of Weasels

In this book the now-long-dead describe how horrid they were to passenger pigeons. It's author found a fund of their quotes in newspapers, regional diaries and journals, unpublished accounts, obscure books, etc. Dead ancestors describe how to kill pigeons in great numbers, how to cook the adults, and note how delicious the babies taste. Nineteenth century reporters give numerous mention to how many pigeons so-and-so killed the previous day with only a single shotgun blast. It seems our deceased kin valued wild pigeons only as a commodity, like grain, or as fun targets to plink as they flew past. Gleaning their attitude from their quotes, the birds weren't sympathized with nor acted kindly towards, only marketed, or shot as some boy's rite of passage. Perhaps vast numbers lost passenger pigeons individual their value? Descending in rolling clouds, each bird was part of a "thing" carrying three possibilities: food, profit, or sport. In one cited instance, rather than allow a few pigeons to escape a large net pinning them to the ground, a pigeon hunter yelled for his assistants to jump prone upon the birds and bite the heads that stuck out of the webbing. Another netter used blacksmith's iron tongs to crush the skull of each pigeon he caught, one by one. Only a handful of citations in Joel Greenberg's narrative describe humans acting humanely. There was an old pigeon trapper, for instance, who had a favorite female stool pigeon he gave a name to. After a while the bird suffered a decline in health. He removed the threads that tied her eyelids shut and let her go, giving her a chance to recover in the wild. The author writes that such gestures were rare until the bird was nearly gone.
Do not blame professional hunters working for distant companies, netting pigeons in tens of thousands for dooming the bird, writes Greenberg. Although they did mighty damage, more was done by the perpetual massacre at roosts and nestings by citizen hunters, pressuring the birds without letup, month after month, year after year, during the last three decades of their free existence. When the huge flocks disappeared professional netters vanished also. Local "sportsmen," however, pressed on. Birds trying to nest in small groups were discovered and either harried enough to abandon their nests or shot. After they became truly rare local hunters shot them because they were disappearing. "Sportsmen" of the day wanted to bag a passenger pigeon before they were all gone. Meanwhile, the bird's protectors were thought busybodies or cranks, and game laws were not enforced, and were ignored anyway.
Greenberg describes how, by the 1870s remote areas of the great American forest had been penetrated by roads and railroad tracks, and locations of the enormous descending flocks telegraphed to the public. People converged on the areas by wagon and train. Roosts and nests were surrounded and systematically obliterated. Even American Indians killed in huge numbers, with entire families camping out at nesting areas to slay the pigeons every day until the young fledged. Indians also prized eating the babies. They fired blunt-tipped arrows into the trees to knock squab out of their nests. A part-white Ottawa woman who later became an environmentalist wrote that her family made a slaughter at the spot where pigeons "builded their nests in an Eden." Greenburg writes that the carnage may have climaxed in 1878, at a giant nesting in Petrosky, Michigan; from that time onward pigeon numbers shrank as the birds never had a day's peace. Twenty-five years later their billions were gone except for caged remnants. Wow.
I had to force myself to listen to this book from about its middle onward because the repetitious slaughter descriptions made me sick. You'll not want to merely chastise your ancestors for what they did—they'll want to work them over bloody with a two-by-four. For all the humorless gloom, the book is thorough, interesting, it's documentation impressive. At the same time it is macabre, angering, and the reader will feel frustrated not being able to stop the killing. Facts are, however, what they are. Andy Caploe speaks a fraction slower than most narrators, which really works well. My only complaint is he should not punctuate the end of sentences by drawing in loud breaths while smacking his lips slightly. That said, I'd gladly sign up for another book narrated by him because he has a fine voice and he doesn't buzz through sentences the way others do.
Greenberg writes that he dreamed and breathed passenger pigeons for some time in order to put down their whole story. He created a nifty little list of the biggest nestings of passenger pigeons in the second half of the nineteenth century. Near the book's end he goes to a lot of trouble figuring out when the last wild pigeon was shot (he says 1902). I think he fumbles a bit at the very end by trying to pull a parallel moral out of things like tall buildings which kill migrating songbirds, and letting your housecat outside to kill small animals. Be that as it may, it is a truthful book and a worthwhile one. It ought be listened to for the description of an amazing animal now lost to us. More than that, Greenberg has set down a classic tale of how a piece of nature was once processed and consumed until there was nothing of it left, caused by commercial greed partnered with the wantonness and wastefulness of individual human beings.
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- Jim "Jumps on his bed while licking the bottom of one foot. He persists in this life affirming act despite interference from the head nurse."

A lovely natural history of the passenger pigeon

This was an informative and thoroughly enjoyable book about the extinction of the passenger pigeon. I learned a lot and you will, too!
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- Joanne Manaster

Book Details

  • Release Date: 01-07-2014
  • Publisher: Audible Studios for Bloomsbury