Remembering the Passenger Pigeon

By Ben Prostine

With a population estimated between 3 and 5 billion, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America, and perhaps the world.  Numerous observers noted the enormous migrations of the bird as flocks would darken the skies for days and the beats of their wings would cool the air below them. 

The decline of the species, from hunting and slaughter by Euro-American settlers, occurred at breakneck speed. In 1871, writes Stanley A. Temple, “central Wisconsin hosted the largest nesting of pigeons ever recorded, covering a core area of 850 square miles and numbering in the hundreds of millions of birds.” Only twenty eight years later, the last pigeon in Wisconsin was shot in Babcock. As Euro-American settlers turned the grasslands and savannahs of America into grains and meat and miles of railroads, the second half of the nineteenth century became a tragic one, including not only the violent dispossession of Native nations in the West, but the near-extinction of bison and even an entire ecosystem: the tallgrass prairie of what we now call the Middle West. 

In 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected a monument to the passenger pigeon in Wyalusing State Park, south of Prairie du Chien. “Dedicated to the last passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899,” the monument states. “This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” On the centenary of the pigeon’s extinction in 2014, the monument was restored and re-dedicated as a part of Project Passenger Pigeon. The aim of Project Passenger Pigeon is to not only ensure the bird will not be forgotten but to “raise awareness of current issues related to human-caused extinction.” 

At the first dedication ceremony in 1947, the conservationist Aldo Leopold would read “On a Monument to the Pigeon.” A modified version of this seminal speech was later collected in A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There, a fundamental work on conservation and ecological thinking published in 1949. 

Leopold recognized he was giving a new kind of elegy: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.” The essay marks the beginning of a literary subgenre that has become all too common today: extinction lit. 

The Passenger Pigeon Memorial at Wyalusing State Park. Credit: Benet2006/CC BY 2.0

In the year Martha died in her cage and the pigeon went extinct, the European and Ottoman Empires began a war that would lead to over 17 million deaths. The monument in Wyalusing was erected in 1947, only two years after the end of another world war, which, by way of the atom bomb and the Holocaust, brought new horrors to the human psyche. As Leopold gave his elegy to “commemorate the funeral of a species,” the nuclear arms race was just beginning and the technology would provide the imagination with a new vision of apocalypse: nuclear warfare.

Leopold expanded this sense of the tragic by including the violence wrought upon the landscape and the wild. He refused to believe “Mr. Du Pont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs “ (two figures involved in the wartime industries and research of World War II) represented “objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.” 

Leopold offered an alternative vision not rooted in atom bombs or the apologetics of “economic moralists,” but an ecological awareness where humans are “fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.” 

“This new knowledge,” writes Leopold, ”should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise… These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.” 

As habitat loss, climate crisis, and the threat of mass extinction continues today, Leopold’s words could be spoken over the monument again with horrible relevance. “Hickory nuts will plop into October leaves, and hail will rattle in November woods. But no pigeons will pass, for there are no pigeons, save only this flightless one, graven in bronze on this rock.”  

Top image: Depiction of a shooting in northern Louisiana, Smith Bennett, 1875/Public Domain.

Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua

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