Passenger Pigeons


I was just in the car and heard today's Talk of the Nation about - of all things - bird watching. They had a few historians on talking about John James Audubon and the history of birdwatching, etc. I hadn't realized that Audubon lived and wrote his famous book Birds of America in the early 1800s. I'm not a bird or nature guy, but I'm still not sure how this fact escaped me. I thought Audubon was much more modern, probably because there was a copy of his book (or something like it) on the window sill next to the binoculars in my grandparent's house when I was growing up.

On the radio, they were talking about Audubon's life, and one of the anecdotes had to do with the now extinct Passenger Pigeon. Did you know they once numbered in the *billions*? And that a "flock" of Passenger Pigeons flying overhead could take days to pass by? Obviously I should've paid much more attention in school as I had no idea about the numbers in involved. It's like stories you read about the Buffalo and how many gazillions there once were and how they number in the handfuls now. It's just amazing things have changed that much.

Anyways, I wanted to learn a bit more and low and behold, The Audubon Society has the entire Birds Of America online! Incredible! Checking out the Passenger Pigeon piece came up with this:

In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson, on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before, and feeling an inclination to count the flocks that might pass within the reach of my eye in one hour, I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I travelled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.

Whilst waiting for dinner at YOUNG'S inn at the confluence of Salt river with the Ohio, I saw, at my leisure, immense legions still going by, with a front reaching far beyond the Ohio on the west, and the beech-wood forests directly on the east of me. Not a single bird alighted; for not a nut or acorn was that year to be seen in the neighbourhood. They consequently flew so high, that different trials to reach them with a capital rifle proved ineffectual; nor did the reports disturb them in the least. I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a Hawk chanced to press upon the rear of a flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the centre. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.

Before sunset I reached Louisville, distant from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which there flew lower as they passed the river. Multitudes were thus destroyed. For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of Pigeons, and talked of nothing but Pigeons.

It's incredible that this many birds existed - the nature here in the Americas must have been mindblowing to the original settlers. Everything from these numbers of animals to things like the groves of Redwood trees - bigger trees than any on the planet. But it really shows you how much human settlement has destroyed, no? It doesn't seem that bad because well, in my case, I've only seen a few dozen years of changes. But over the past 300 years, we've done quite the number on the environment.

Despite being on the far, far left, I'm not particularly an environmentalist. Stories like this though definitely make me think I should pay a lot more attention to it, no?


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