This year is the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. I forgive you for not knowing. Bird lover that I am, I didn’t know until a few days ago when I visited Mass MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art http://www.massmoca.org/event_details.php?id=934) and came upon this little gem in a glass case. It stopped me in my tracks. A tiny goblet commemorating the extinction of a species? I didn’t know such a thing existed. It’s the stuff of a poet’s dreams. This poet at least. (As an aside, when I stare at this picture, my son says: “mom stop looking at it you’re making yourself sad.” and I have to explain to him that, in a strange way, something about it is making me happy.)
I’ve heard the stories of passenger pigeons, mythic in proportion (except they’re all true and accurate), darkening the skies for days during migration and blanketing villages with their droppings. According to Joel Greenberg in his book A Feathered River Across The Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, the passenger pigeon was 1.5 times larger than a mourning dove, “a mourning dove on steroids”. A man who grew up in Indiana in the 1860s reported hearing crashing all night from breaking limbs where the pigeons nested in a maple grove. They were described as the locusts of birds. It’s unusual for the extinction of a species to be pinpointed with such accuracy, but the last passenger pigeon, a bird named Martha, was raised in captivity with two companions, known to be the last. Martha’s two companions died in 1910 when she was 25 years old. She lived another four years as the last of her species. In his book Lost Animals; Extinction and the Photographic Record, Errol Fuller writes: “Yet she lingered on alone for a few more years. Whether this lonely existence was an ordeal for a bird as highly social as a passenger pigeon cannot be said.” After her death, Martha was frozen in a block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian to be stuffed. Her molted feathers were collected and sent along for use in the taxidermy, to give her a more youthful look. As if all this wasn’t enough, I’ll give you a couple quotes from A Feathered River Across the Sky to prime the pump.
“The pigeon had no song save for ‘a number of low notes, some of which are sounds that seem to be almost the soft breathing of the great trees.'”
“…gently fluttering their half-spread wings and uttering to their mates those strange, bell-like wooing notes which I had mistaken for the ringing of bells in the distance.”
Imagine, a sound we’ll never hear, the call of a bird that doesn’t exist.