The shade of America’s first great birdman is restless today. It’s been more than two centuries since Wilson, a self-exiled Scot, began publishing his color descriptions of all known North American birds. One of those, still very much alive, was the Passenger Pigeon.
Earlier this week I saw the living, closest cousin of the Passenger Pigeon, in my own garden. It was a lone Band-tailed Pigeon. Note the iridescent patch on the bird’s nape. Many members of the pigeon/dove family have similar coloring. So did the Passenger Pigeon.
I blogged earlier about seeing Band-tails in my garden this winter. In six previous years I had no record of Band-tails after Nov. 5 or before March 5. This year they’ve been around occasionally in both January and February, now on March 2 as well.
I attribute this presence to the non-winter we’re having. After one heavy blizzard on Jan. 5 and two more weeks of freezing cold, winter seemed to dissolve. We began to get occasional light rains, and winds from the south. Most days the high is over 50 degrees. There’s no mountain snowpack. Our local ski resort at 6500′ on Mt. Ashland never opened this year and now is defunct. Lakes at 4500-5000′ are unfrozen, full of ducks, coots and geese instead of snow drifts. I now see Western Bluebirds hunting meadows at 4500′ in full sun. It’s been so dry that a Rough-legged Hawk has wintered at Howard Prairie which should be an icy marsh this time of the time.
A CENTURY AFTER EXTINCTION
This year marks the sad centennial of the death of the last living Passenger Pigeon. Killed off by widespread gunners’ slaughter and manmade habitat destruction. When he drew the bird two centuries ago Wilson would never have imagined its coming demise: On this page from my copy of Wilson’s American Ornithology you see his image of the bird.*
He wrote, “…the most remarkable characteristic of these birds is their associating together, both in their migrations, and also during the period of incubation, in such prodigious numbers, as almost to surpass belief; and which has no parallel among any other of the feathered tribes on the face of the earth, with which naturalists are acquainted.”
From prodigious numbers to extinction in one century.
Wilson described watching one Passenger Pigeon flock move across the Ohio River in Kentucky: “the Pigeons, which I had observed flying the greater part of the morning northerly, began to return, in such immense numbers as I never before had witnessed…The were flying, with great steadiness and rapidity, as a height beyond gunshot, in several strata deep…From right to left, far as the eye could reach, the breadth of this vast procession extended, seeing every where equally crowded…I took out my watch to note the time, and sat down to observe them. It was then half past one. I sat for more than an hour, but instead of a diminution of this prodigious procession, it seemed rather to increase both in numbers and rapidity…I rose and went on. About four o’clock in the afternoon I crossed the Kentucky river, at the town of Frankfort, at which time the living torrent over my head seemed as numerous and as extensive as ever.”
Finally, Wilson tries to calculate the size of the Passenger Pigeon flock he had seen. His conclusion: “two thousand, two hundred and thirty millions, two hundred and seventy-two thousand Pigeons!”
In figures: 2,230,270,000 Passenger Pigeons in a single Ohio/Kentucky flock. A century later : 0.
BRING BACK THE PIGEON?
Now the very much alive Band-tailed Pigeon may give Alexander Wilson’s ghost some rest or further unrest. The Band-tail is at the heart of an effort to bring the Passenger Pigeon back from extinction. Read all about it in Nathaniel Rich’s amazing piece in the recent New York Times Magazine. Click here for the link.
I am not even sure how I feel about his plan to revive the dead. And I am even less certain what Alexander Wilson might think.
* The two warblers here in Wilson’s drawing are named “Hemlock” and “Blue Mountain.” Modern suppositions are that the Hemlock is a juvenile Bay-breasted, and “Blue Mountain” is a non-breeding plumage Black-throated Green.
HERE IN ASHLAND, OREGON, THE KLAMATH BIRD OBSERVATORY IS SPONSORING OUR FIRST-EVER MOUNTAIN BIRD FESTIVAL. IT IS MAY 30-JUNE 1. WHITE-HEADED WOODPECKER, CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD, WESTERN SCREECH-OWL, SANDHILL CRANES ON NESTING GROUNDS, BOTH EAGLES, NESTING OSPREY, ACORN & LEWIS’S WOODPECKERS, MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD AND CHICKADEE, HERMIT AND MACGILLIVRAY’S WARBLER, CASSIN’S FINCH AND VIREO, BAND-TAILED PIGEON, BLACK TERN, RED-BREASTED AND WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKERS, GREEN-TAILED TOWHEE, LAZULI BUNTING, AMERICAN DIPPER, WRENTIT, TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE–SOME OF THE BIRDS WE EXPECT TO SEE. WITH A LITTLE BIRDING MOJO WE CAN ADD GREAT GRAY OWL, SOOTY GROUSE, MOUNTAIN QUAIL, NORTHERN PYGMY-OWL, SWAINSON’S HAWK, EVENING GROSBEAKAND NORTHERN GOSHAWK.