Author Rekindles Story of Century-Long Extinct Passenger Pigeon

Mar 31, 2014

The species disappeared in 1914 - author Joel Greenberg hopes to create awareness and broaden interest in conservation.

A natural historian and researcher, Greenberg looks closely at the life and death of the species in his recent book, “A Feathered River Across the Sky.” He says his awareness of the passenger pigeon began back when he was a grade school student.

“I was in school in Skokie Illinois and I checked out a library book called “Birds of America” by T. Gilbert Pearson.

Greenberg says he couldn’t put the book down. He’s had a lifelong interest in animals and became an avid bird watcher at age 12.

“And over the years since, I’ve had a particularly strong interest in what I call historical natural history; how has a region or the country changed in its flora and fauna over the years mostly due to human changes.”

Greenberg sees the story of the passenger pigeon as a perfect example of human impact on a species.

“One of the largest flights ever recorded occurred near Fort Mississauga, Ontario; this was in May probably around 1860 when likely anywhere from 2 to 3.7 billion birds crossed the skies over the course of three days.”

Forty years later, the bird had disappeared from the wild.

“Fourteen years later on September 1, 1914 the very last of the species died rendering it extinct. And it became extinct mostly because of unrelenting killing.”

Much of the population was killed for its meat.

“It was sell for pennies a piece; they were the cheapest terrestrial protein. There was a demand for cheap food.”

A smaller percentage were used for trapshooting.

Greenberg says there was an effort to save the bird from extinction, including in Milwaukee.

“A man named David Whittaker who also had a swimming school and was apparently very prominent on the Milwaukee River and then some of his birds wound up in Chicago under the care of Professor Charles Otis Whitman of University of Chicago and then the Cincinnati flock. These birds were being bred in captivity but it’s important to know that this was not a part of a conservation effort. When they got down to one or two birds in Cincinnati there was some effort to try to locate other birds to augment the birds they did have, but those efforts were way too late to provide any real possibility of success.”
 

Passenger pigeon mural in Cincinnati
Passenger pigeon mural in Cincinnati

Today, Greenberg hopes renewed interest in the passenger pigeon – one hundred years later – will broaden public engagement in conservation. Greenberg says he has teamed up with more than 160 organizations in an effort called the Passenger Pigeon Project.

“It includes programs and exhibits; we also made a point to try to engage artists and that has shown great success. There’s a mural in downtown Cincinnati for instance showing the birds. I think it’s important to use as many techniques and media as possible to bring in new folks who might not otherwise have heard the story of the bird.”

Greenberg is taking up the topic tonight in Milwaukee at the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park.