The Passenger Pigeon
by Errol Fuller
177 pages. Princeton University Press, 2014. £19.95
Extinction is a hot topic at the moment. In the months leading up to September 2014 it sometimes seemed as if every other post amongst birders on Twitter and Facebook was reminding us in one way or another that an important ornithological anniversary was coming up. But if you don’t use social media it might have passed you by, so I’ll start with a reminder of why this book has been published at this particular time.
On 1st September 1914 the last known Passenger Pigeon, a female called Martha, died in her cage at Cincinnati Zoo. In a little over half a century, the species had gone from being one of the commonest in the world, probably numbering in the billions, to none.
This book tells the story of the Passenger Pigeon, a story almost beyond belief in the scale of the destruction it relates. After an introductory chapter on avian extinction in general, there are accounts of the days when flocks darkened the sky, descriptions of the bird and its ecology, through ‘The Downward Spiral’ (I did notice one rather glaring error here, in that the ‘n’ is missing from this chapter’s title page), the causes of extinction, to the last captive birds and the death of Martha. Two further chapters discuss the enduring legacy of the Passenger Pigeon in art and literature, and there is an appendix by Julian Hume covering the anatomy of the bird.
The phrase ‘lavishly illustrated’ is a cliché in reviews and dustjacket blurbs, but accurately describes this book. Errol Fuller has managed to bring together a large number of paintings and photographs of Passenger Pigeons, along with images people and places relevant to the story, many of which were new to me. Most poignant are the black and white photos, taken in the late 19th century, of the last few remaining birds in their aviary, and Martha herself, both alive and then stuffed as she is today. The photos of the live birds show a graceful, gentle-looking pigeon, something not always captured by early bird artists, most of whom would of course have been working from stuffed specimens rather than live birds.
A book about a long extinct bird could easily have been a dry, academic tome full of dull facts and figures, but Errol Fuller has managed to avoid this, and instead has produced an engaging book to fire the imagination, to encourage empathy with Martha, alone in her cage for the last four years of her life, to provoke outrage that the species was driven to extinction, and above all, a desire to fight to prevent the same fate befalling others. In his own words in the Introduction, it is “…simply a celebration (perhaps an inappropriate term in the circumstances) , in both words and pictures, of the former existence of the Passenger Pigeon…”
It could be argued that this centenary is of more interest in North America, and indeed it is being commemorated on a much larger scale there (e.g. www.passengerpigeon.org), but as a warning from history it is surely global in its message. If a bird as common as the Passenger Pigeon once was can be driven to extinction by “the avarice and thoughtlessness of man”, to quote from the memorial to the last Wisconsin bird featured on the back cover of the book, it can happen to any species. Our own Turtle Dove, to give the most pertinent example, is currently well on the way down the same road.