Segment from The Departed

A Profusion of Pigeons

Ed talks with historian Jennifer Price about the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the lessons we can draw from its decimation.

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**This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight differences in content with the audio version above**
BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, here, with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

PETER: And Ed Harris.

ED: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: And we’re going to begin today with the incredible story of the passenger pigeon.

JENNIFER PRICE: Yeah, the passenger pigeon was, basically, unbelievable.

BRIAN: This is Jennifer Price– a historian at Princeton.

JENNIFER PRICE: Like, if you think about the biggest flock of starlings you’ve ever seen, that seems like a scene out of Hitchcock, and then you multiply that by, about, a million.

MALE VOICE: I can well remember that, in the spring of 1811, a flock passed over Templeton that was many hours in sight and so large as to cover the whole horizon. They first appeared about a half an hour before sunrise and continued until after 10:00.

BRIAN: This is from the diary of a Massachusetts man named Christopher Baldwin– one of the many terrifying accounts from this period of pigeon flocks that were many hundreds of miles long.

JENNIFER PRICE: Keep in mind that these passages are invariably preceded by a couple sentences saying, I was sober; I had witnesses; I didn’t make this up.

MALE VOICE: As the watchers stared, the hum increased to a mighty throbbing. Now everyone was out of houses and stores looking apprehensively at the growing cloud, which was blotting out the rays of the sun.

Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried to the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the Millennium. And several dropped on their knees and prayed.

BRIAN: If that wasn’t terrifying enough to contemplate, imagine what would have been like with these millions of birds actually landed.

JENNIFER PRICE: There were like 100 year old, foot-wide trees that would just keel over under the weight of the pigeons. And so there’s this– sort of this hail of falling branches and falling trees and bludgeoned pigeons that come down with the branches and the trees.

And then, you know, by the time the pigeons would actually leave a roost site, or especially a nesting site where they might stay for a few weeks, it would just look like the apocalypse had come. There was not a single green leaf left. There’d be, at least, a foot of dung on the ground. These would be, actually, very fertile places for awhile. There’d be fallen trees all over the place.

ED: The only they more striking than the sheer numbers of these passenger pigeons is the speed with which they disappeared from the face of the earth. In the 1880’s, this larger, more colorful, relative of the street pigeon we know today was still the most populous vertebrate in North America. A decade later, it was hard to find a flock of them anywhere.

They’d always been prized for their meat. What seems to happen is that indiscriminate hunting, together but deforestation and disease, reduced the birds numbers below a critical threshold necessary for the species survival. The very last passenger pigeon died 100 years ago, this September, at the Cincinnati Zoo.

BRIAN: It’s probably fair to say that the bird’s death– her name was Martha– marked a turning point in the way understood their role of the natural world. Today on the show we’re marking Earth Day with an in depth look at some of the other ways Americans have thought about extinction.

ED: We have stories about Thomas Jefferson’s resistance to the idea that living species could disappear, and about a court case, from the 1970s, that made extinction into a political hot potato. But first, we’re going to spend a few more minutes with Jennifer Price who has written about the twists and turns in American’s relationship with the passenger pigeon. She explained to me that these tremendous flocks of birds only came around every few years.

JENNIFER PRICE: So pigeons ate beech nuts and acorns, they relied on old growth trees, really. And beech trees and oak trees only have a really big crop about every two to eight years. And so that’s why the pigeons would move around quite a bit. And they wouldn’t show up in one place reliably. They would show up, maybe, every six or seven years.

Now whenever this would happen, beginning with the Native Americans, this was an event. This was a huge event. The Native Americans, actually, relied on pigeons for subsistence. And wherever the pigeons were, the Native American groups would gather. And they would often, actually, schedule their, sort of, inter-tribal council meetings around the pigeon nestings.

ED: So, we are in the early 19th century and the pigeons are coming through all the towns and cities of the East. But, for some reason, the locus of the pigeon hunting moves west. Could you tell us why that happens?

JENNIFER PRICE: Well, I think it’s, really, a story of technology and markets. What happens to the pigeon markets is the pigeon markets start out local on the East Coast, also, in the Midwest– wherever the pigeons are. Because, you just can’t send a pigeon very far before it turns into mush.

ED: I see.

JENNIFER PRICE: So there’s a limit on how big the markets can get. Then what happens is you get the railroads, which spread out across the country. And you, also, get really important new technologies for preservation. So you get cold storage cars on the trains.

So then what happens is you can have professional market hunters who are actually using the railroad lines to get to the communities– not just where the pigeons are, but where all the game species are. And then using the refrigerated cars to ship all this game back to the Eastern markets where the game has been eradicated, really, decades before that. And so what happens is– the reason you get the pigeon eradication in the 1870s is that’s when the markets and the railroads finally reach, sort of, the last piece

ED: Refuge–

JENNIFER PRICE: Of the continent.

ED: And so did people put out warnings– look out, if we keep shooting these pigeons we’re going to wipe them out. We’re there warnings like that?

JENNIFER PRICE: No, because you have to remember that the pigeons don’t show up in any one locale every year. So there’s a lag time in realizing that the pigeons are gone. Because they’re very– they’re travelers.

So there’s a real lag time of almost, I would say, a decade or two– even two decades– where people really– it really starts to sink in that the pigeons are gone. Because it’s also just so inconceivable to people. Like they just don’t think it’s possible that they could not be around. And

So, really, the first people to start to notice it is, of course, this small core of market hunters who actually makes their living by following the flocks from year to year. And they show up at 1880, and there’s a few thousand pigeons. And they go off to look for the main flock, and they don’t find it.

But it really takes a very long time to sink in. And people just assume– I mean really, up until, like, the 1960’s people are saying, oh, I saw some in Bolivia. I saw some on the coast of Russia. They flew to Alaska.

There’s this sense that the pigeons just got disgusted and went elsewhere. And by the time people realize that they’re really gone, it’s way too late to do anything about it.

ED: So you mentioned your book of the monuments ever put up Wisconsin to the last flocks of pigeons. And they say– the explanation for this is pretty straightforward. It’s the avarice of man.

JENNIFER PRICE: Yes, in general, every time you see people talk about the extinction it’s man’s greed, man’s avarice, man’s thoughtlessness. My explanation is a little bit longer than that. And it’s really two parts.

First, is that it’s not man greed. It’s particular people, in a particular economy, with a particular social structure, who are putting particular kinds of pressures on natural resources, for particular reasons. And you really– if you don’t really look very specifically at the market forces that really drove the pigeons extinct, then, I think, you don’t get much of a lesson out of it.

But the other thing that I think is really important, that we lose track of, is that these pigeons were actually really meaningful to people. Yes, people were shooting them like crazy in ways that were actually, ultimately, really destructive, but they also really loved pigeons. And pigeons represented things to them.

The pigeons would come in, and it was just this abundance beyond imagination. And it really said a lot to people about their identity as Americans. Game had been long depleted in Britain and in Europe–

ED: Right, right.

JENNIFER PRICE: In the European countries, it had been depleted for centuries and centuries. And one of the things that was really defining about American identity was this abundance of natural resources. And when the pigeons would come in, it would just tell that story 50 times over.

And, also, about independence– the people could go and they could shoot. Again, in Europe, you had a lot of restrictions on who could hunt game. In the United States, everybody could hunt game.

And then the pigeons, also, brought communities together. Everybody in the community would drop what they’re doing. Shops would be empty. Restaurants would be empty. People would just all go to the pigeon roost.

And so, it also told you a story about your community, and about people coming together and doing things together. So pigeons, because of this dramatic quality that they had, have always been really meaningful to people. And that is still true.

You know, why are we talking about pigeons in 2014? You know, they’re still really, really good animals for telling us stories. And now we use pigeons to tell, sort of, cautionary stories about our relationships with nature.

ED: That’s beautiful. And I thought one the beautiful things in your chapter was the way you talk about when we go to the grocery store today and buy meat. You know, we get it beneath the shrink wrap and precisely weighed.

So is that the basic thing that happened is that the pigeons had been meaningful to people who actually saw them and killed them and cooked them in pies. But the urban consumers– and you talk about the rise of the restaurant. And the pigeon– by the time to get that, it’s rapped not only in other kinds of foods and, sort of, draped with a kind of garnish. But it’s also dressed in French language. Is that what happens is that we lose the sense of meaning and of consequence? Or am I imposing a false simplicity on this?

JENNIFER PRICE: No, no– I think this is definitely an important part of the story is that the meanings of pigeons– it’s not that people aren’t still attaching meanings to the pigeons on their plates. But it’s, rather, that those meanings become very abstracted, very disconnected, from the actual pigeon.

You know, like you said, the pigeon– you can’t even tell it’s a pigeon by the time Del Monaco’s gets done with it. I mean, there are pigeon dishes that take them two days to prepare. They’re like 12 different– it’s almost like a seafood tower. Like now– 12 pigeons arranged on a– on many different layers, with about a billion sauces on them and all kinds of truffles and veggies.

So the pigeon– it’s not that people aren’t making the bird meaningful, but they’re making them meaningful in ways that are disconnected from the flocks and the meanings of the flocks. So when the pigeon, actually, disappears– who cares? I mean, it’s the market hunters that get blamed. And it’s the locals in Wisconsin and Michigan that get blamed. But they’re really no more to blame then the consumers who are demanding the pigeons for the market’s.

ED: Right. Which seems to be the theme of your story, right, and I think, it’s meaning for us today is that it’s easy to point at the people with the guns and coming on the railroads and so forth doing this. But the fact is that it takes a nation to destroy millions a pigeons. I mean it takes the most urbane, sophisticated consumers, as well as, people who are making a living off wildlife, sort of, flying through their neighborhood.

JENNIFER PRICE: I think it is a story about using local, finite resources for much, much broader markets. And, like you said, it takes a nation to destroy the pigeon. But I think the lesson is, partly, also that it takes a nation to save the pigeons.

That regulation can’t just be local. And that we need– and this, in fact, is what eventually saved game species from being wiped out entirely, is that by the 1900s when we would say, oh my god, the continent has just been emptied of its wildlife– they pass national laws for the first times. And those have been enormously effective, actually, in saving a lot of species.

ED: Jennifer Price is a visiting professor at the Princeton Environmental Institute. We’ll link to excerpt from her book Flight Maps at back

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory, we’ll be back in a minute.