Caught by the River

Martha, My Dear by Tim Dee

Tim Dee | 1st September 2014


At six o’clock this evening (1st September) I will be busy with the dead. The University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge has fourteen skins of passenger pigeons shut away in the wooden drawers of its collection (the museum is being packed up ahead of a rebuild that should be finished in 2016) and the poet, Paul Farley, and I will be pulling on blue surgical gloves to be handed the corpses by Matt Lowe, the collections manager. We’ll be marking a 100th death-day to the minute. The death of a single bird called Martha, but also of a species.

Passenger pigeons were medium-sized birds, with strikingly long tails, their upperparts were dark slatey-blue and their underparts rusty red, to a varying degree – males were brighter than females. A skin is not a stuffed bird with glass-eyes mounted in a life-like position such as we know from the public galleries of museums. Such taxidermy is reserved for front of house business. Skins do the behind the scenes scientific work. When a bird is collected – to collect a bird, scientifically speaking, means to kill it – it is gutted, its soft parts (its eyes) are removed, it is doused with some preservative or other (often arsenic, in the old days), and a stick, like a lolly-stick on a small bird and anything in size up to a broom-stick on a large one, is skewered up where its innards once were. A label detailing the species and the place of its collection and its collector is attached either to the stick or to the bird’s feet. In death it becomes useful to knowledge. Much understanding has begun in the scrutiny of those who are dead like this. But since we haven’t seen the squadron of Cambridge pigeons yet, nor held them in our hands, I am not sure quite what we will do or what we will say (Radio 4’s The Echo Chamber on 30th November will transmit our responses). Something needs to be said, however, and the same spirit of wanting to mark a passing, the end of the greatest human-caused extinction in recorded history, attends two new books timed for the same grim anniversary: Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha (Bloomsbury) and John Wilson Foster’s Pilgrims of the Air (Notting Hill Editions).

The passenger pigeon is famous for being extinct. So are the dodo and the great auk. But, unlike those other two icons of the dead and gone, the pigeon scratches more intimately, more complicatedly, at our hearts and minds. The dodo was shuffled off a long time ago and the great auk was a weird bird of remote places. We are implicated in the extinction of all three (as we are of almost all avian extinctions in the last two thousand years) but the passenger pigeon’s fate is more substantially threaded through our lives and the world we have made and continue to live in. It was a passenger in a vehicle we drove and are driving still. And the fact that the last ever passenger pigeon died one hundred years ago, today at 1pm local time, in a cage in a zoo in Cincinnati, and that, until just a few decades before 1914 (in the lifetime of some of our grandparents) the species had been the most abundant bird in the whole world, ought to shake us awake even as we seem hell-bent on keeping the pedal to the floor. That extinction was our work, a modern unmaking, and it can only be good to think about what we have done.

John James Audubon’s vast book The Birds of America (1826-1838) – the most expensive printed book produced to date – includes his pictures (paintings turned into prints) of six now extinct American taxa. Five species and a subspecies: the great auk, the Carolina parakeet, the Labrador duck, the Eskimo curlew, the passenger pigeon, and the subspecies of the prairie chicken known as the pinnated grouse or the heath hen. Audubon never saw a living great auk. The ones he painted were based on a dead bird he bought in London. By the time he painted the bird, which lives in our minds somewhere between the flightless dodo and a northern dream of a penguin, it was all but extinct in Newfoundland. And knowing this gave Audubon an intimation of other extinctions. He had, as Peter Matthiessen said, taken uneasy note of the dark future, saying, ‘before many years the buffalo like the great auk will have disappeared.’ But the other birds he did see, and kill in order to paint them, without knowing that these species too were going into the long night of oblivion and that he – their painter and describer – would become associated, as it now seems, with a catalogue made in Eden just before the Fall. Nor did he know that his shooting of some of those birds might be taken as indicative of the whole of the new nation’s attitude to the teeming life it found around it and which it so hastily dispatched. He didn’t know either of these things but they both underpin our wider feelings and responses to the pictures and the huge book he made and the story of its making and of its posthumous value and significance. Without all those ghosts of the gone, the double-elephant (the 40 x 26 inch paper-size of Audubon’s book) wouldn’t sound or tread quite as it does.

There is a strange absence at the heart of American birdlife. I have felt this on several visits over thirty years to various places across the country but only clinched quite what the deficit was a couple of years ago when travelling along the east coast from New England to Georgia. There is a gap in the avifauna – there are plenty of small passerine birds like robins and plenty of larger ones like crows, but there are very few birds in between. Whereas a day’s walk through rural Britain will put pigeons – wood pigeons, stock doves, and collared doves – in front of you at every turn, a comparable walk in eastern America in a landscape fairly similar to a British scene will not. Mourning doves are around the edges of towns but there is no American wood pigeon. There was. It was the passenger pigeon.

Man is an extinction-making species: our apparent success has come out of the apparent failure of other species (Neanderthals, dodos, smallpox). The same success may yet well lead to our own undoing. Los Angeles, city of aerial light and flight, is a good place to think about this dark and bituminous thought. The coastal plain where Los Angeles is now was once grassland that ran right to the ocean. In the flat thicket of today’s city the La Brea ranch survives. The naturally seeping crude oil or asphalt swamps there (brea means tar in Spanish) have ensured this. The dust-crusted black pools attracted oilmen in the early years of the white mans’ California. They planted their derricks and pumped. Previously the grasslands and nearby sage scrub had drawn herbivores, buffalo and many others, and carnivores had followed the herds, and occasionally the tar pits among the grass trapped both, pulling them down and keeping them preserved there in the sticky oil. When I was there, I watched a white butterfly land on one of the open pits and flounder as its feet got stuck. In its struggle it brought a white wing too close to the tar and that too was glued and became impossibly heavy and the insect crumpled to the black. It happened like this for thousands of years. In warmer seasons the tar softened, like a road in summer, while grass and dust and water covered and camouflaged its surface. Wandering animals misread the signs and fell into the death traps. In one cabinet at the La Brea Page Museum, back lit in amber light, are the oil-blackened skulls of four hundred and four extinct dire wolves. The dire wolf is or was in the same family as the grey (or timber) wolves that are now back in Yellowstone and elsewhere in the Midwest after a near century of extinction there. The surviving species may well have had a role in the end of the defunct. The greys were smaller but faster and had a bigger brain and probably out competed the dire. Coyote and grey wolf remains have also been found at La Brea but in numbers nowhere near the 200,000 bones of the extinct dire wolves. Those that their brothers didn’t get and that the tar didn’t take were seen off for good ten thousand years ago by the retreat of the most recent glaciation in North America, the Wisconsin Glacial Episode.

A little earlier the same ice (its locking away of the sea) had assisted in the opening of the land bridge – a grass bridge in effect – at the Bering Straits between America and Asia that allowed the first humans to reach North America. Then the ice melted northwards in the warming world and thanks to the changing climate or the new people or both, as if the flickering film of creation was being run in reverse, the horse that had evolved with the grasses of America disappeared, and so did almost all of the grassland animals and their followers, the dire wolf, a camel (Camelops hesternus, yesterday’s camel), all the mammoths (one mammoth rib cage has been found with the marks of eight separate spear attacks), a giant sloth, two llamas, a cheetah and a sabre-toothed tiger.

In their place newcomers made hay. The Clovis people (named for artefacts found near Clovis, New Mexico) crossed the strait-lands of Beringia from Asia and so did buffalo and elk. The buffalo left Asia on bison passports and switched half-way across, and the elk did the same, trading in their red deer faces. American grass was up ahead and they could smell it. They grew together, people, herbivores, carnivores, all co-evolving in the great American field. Those that were already there were caught out. Of the native mammals only the fast running pronghorn antelope survived. The horse had to wait until 1519 to return to its first latitudes (it evolved in America but became extinct there) when Hernando Cortés brought his boatload of sixteen – noted as black, grey, and piebald – from Spain. The other animals, aside from a relict population of retreating mammoths that survived in Alaska until 3750 BC, never made American landfall again.

The passenger pigeon was a part of this story, six bones from three Pleistocene birds have been found at La Brea, though its connection with masting woodland (beech mast, oak acorns, chestnuts etc) meant that it was more recently a bird of the forested east and south of North America and probably never knew yesterday’s camel. Deciduous woods covered almost the entire eastern seaboard. The pigeons were colossally at home there. Indians lived in the woods and off the pigeons. Big Breads, one tribe called them. There were plenty of trees and birds to go around and there were not many people until a new sort of human appeared over the marine horizon with a kitbag of axes and guns.

One of the givens of the ghoulish literature of extinctions is that you cannot read of the passenger pigeon in accounts written by those who saw it or in any subsequent telling of its fate without coming across the image of the vast flocks of the birds blackening the sky at noon. The birds were so abundant that their flights overheads were counted in miles or in days. Audubon wasn’t the first to record this (reports of the bird were linked with this image – ‘the standard measure of the discomfiting numerousness of the bird’, Wilson Foster calls it – right from the very first observations of them sent back east from the new world) but his descriptions have become key in both the documentation and the imagining of the lost species. In the autumn of 1813 Audubon saw flocks of passenger pigeons darken the midday sky as if it were an eclipse of the sun; their droppings fell like snow and covered the earth, he said; for three days the flock passed overhead without pause, day and night at a steady speed of 60 mph (the blue meteor the pigeon was called); the very air smelled of pigeons, and he calculated that, in the end, 25 billion birds had flown over him.

Some of this might not be true or might be exaggerated. Wilson Foster says Audubon was an inheritor not a generator of these tropes. He was a habitual garnisher of facts for dramatic effect: he added a rattlesnake to a nest of mockingbirds in one of his paintings for the Birds of America even though it was known at the time that rattlesnakes rarely climbed trees or took mockingbirds as prey. But it made a great picture. And others corroborated the size of the flocks at the time. Meanwhile, the extraordinary accounts still seem beyond belief because we have pitifully little to put up against them by comparison. The teeming herds of the Rift Valley, stucco’d with quadrupeds (Walt Whitman’s phrase), might come close but most of us have seen that only piped onto our miserable screens via the BBC Natural History Unit. The estimated eight million starlings that gathered for their winter roost on the Somerset Levels a few years ago might be the best we could manage. But 25 billion birds? Or even Mark Avery’s suggested revision of Audubon’s count to between 5 and 10 billion birds? How does the mind take that in?

This is further complicated by our knowledge that not a single passenger pigeon is left. The mind is messed with twice over. When it lived it made up to 40% of the total land bird population of the United States. With it gone and all but a few of the 50 million buffalo on the Great Plains gone too you might expect North America to be rising higher out of the waves, so light it must feel without those herds and those flocks. And if you look at the remaining species of birds you do sense something of this absence. The woods have come back in the east of the USA – secondary growth has commandeered the land settlers cleared. A photograph you can buy as a postcard at Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst shows fields across a landscape now thick with trees. At Woodstock in New York State, I have walked through dense woodland for miles and come across old stone-walls edging long lost orchards still blossoming and fruiting many decades after they were abandoned. A black bear came barrelling towards me through one of these and made me shake. The bears have followed the trees back and some of these trees must now be mature enough to be producing the mast and acorns that the passenger pigeons ate. But the bird won’t be back anytime soon.

Some scientists are harvesting the DNA of museum specimens and dream of some resurrection but the pigeon as a species is beyond repair. We took it there. No man is an island, John Donne said, and I wish it were true. The lesson of the great auk, the dodo, the passenger pigeon and the whole sad ark of the extinct is that all men seek to be islands, are island makers, and have islanded minds. The footprints in the sand on the beach turn out always and only to have been our own. We don’t know how to get along with or join those who were there before us, so we kill them.

There are odd parallels and overlaps between the pigeons and the tide of peoples sweeping in from across the ocean. Their common success at being what they were, most of all. Were they somehow too alike to be permitted to get along? The birds were irruptive. Their scientific name Ectopistes migratorius means the wandering wanderer. They were called passengers because as well as making seasonal north-south migrations they also regularly flocked after food from region to region. They bred quickly in enormous colonies, ate up all the mast around, abandoned their single squabs as quick as they could and flew on for another go, another chick in another forest, where there was still some food to be eaten. The blue meteors were fast and good fliers. Strays even turned up in Britain. The birds in America were voracious feeders – they liked berries, grain and worms as well as all that mast – if they spotted something they liked but were full they could disgorge food from their crop to make way for the new grub. Audubon calculated that pigeons killed in New York with undigested rice in their crops could only have eaten that food further south in Georgia or Carolina and so were able to fly ‘one mile in a minute.’ He was probably right about that.

A recent study (published after both these new books) throws further light on the passenger pigeon’s extraordinary population in North America in the 19th-century. A paper published in July in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) reports the findings of scientists who have looked with high throughput sequencing technologies at the bird’s genome and have been able to assess the bird’s population over a much longer period than has hitherto been possible. They report that the passenger pigeon was ‘not always super abundant but experienced dramatic population fluctuations, resembling those of an “outbreak” species.’ It lived therefore, somewhat like a lemming, in cycles of boom and bust. The authors continue: ‘Ecological niche models supported inference of drastic changes in the extent of its breeding range over the last glacial–interglacial cycle. An estimate of acorn-based carrying capacity during the past 21,000 years showed great year-to-year variations. Based on our results, we hypothesize that ecological conditions that dramatically reduced population size under natural conditions could have interacted with human exploitation in causing the passenger pigeon’s rapid demise.’ The arrival of armed and hungry Europeans en masse coincided with a boom time for the passenger pigeon. Its population might have been always prone to dips and falls but those axes and guns damned and drained the ebbs and runs of the tide with disastrous effect.

Birds coming to their nestings in woods sounded to Audubon like ‘a hard gale at sea’. Some of these colonies were said to stretch for one hundred miles. They built a scrappy, twiggy nest and normally laid a single egg. The incubation period was short – just 12-13 days – everything was hurry in the pigeon world. When the front of a flock landed, the birds at the back would leapfrog over those ahead in a rolling cylinder of feathers, wings and beaks. Life seethed but it was cheap too. Their perches in their roost woods ‘gave way under the weight [of birds]’, Audubon said, ‘with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed thousands of birds beneath…it was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak or even to shout…the reports even of the nearest guns were seldom heard; and I knew of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading… the pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each [hunter] had as many as he could possibly dispose of, then the hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder.’

America and its guns. Audubon had been dead for twenty years when the pigeon’s rapid and catastrophic decline began during the 1870s. The curse of a Christian minister on the plague of birds was blamed, also disease and mass drowning. Some said the birds had moved south or west. But the real reason was closer to hand – the axe and the gun. Simply put, millions of new Americans couldn’t live alongside the billions of old Americans. Modern man couldn’t co-exist with the pigeon. Its very stuff, the resource it represented, was like a blowing well that had to be tapped. There was too much transferable value in it for it not to be drained dry. The 1870s was also the decade that marked the beginning of the end of the human Native American as well. And just as they were killing the buffalo and the Plains Indians in the open spaces in the middle of the country the new Americans cut down the trees and killed the birds that lived in them in the east. The sheer abundance of what they had found on their arrival in this land of cockayne had gone to their heads. They shot the birds for fun and for food. They used them as targets to hone their trigger happiness: they were the pigeons before clay-pigeons. Almost everyone in east coast nineteenth century North America ate passenger pigeon. Pigeon was manna and the birds fed the nation. A single shot overhead into a flock could bring down one hundred and thirty-two. The feathers and wings of slaughtered pigeons were used to pave roads. The entry level of a hunting competition stipulated over 30,000 passenger pigeons must be killed before any combatant was eligible for a prize.

passengerpigeon8Tim Hough, 2014

What made us think such behaviour was tenable? Why did the abundance, a feathered commonwealth, prompt such slaughter? Did the perceived glut of life somehow demand a commensurate response? What had so skewed our minds for this to be the case? On these questions these two new books venture some thoughts but mostly stick to the story of the end of a species. That is epic itself and suffices for both. John Wilson Foster has carefully laid out the historical record and finds a sad poetry in the old descriptions of the pigeons, non-expert writings that witness a storm of life, elegies made for the birds before they were extinct. Mark Avery’s focus is on what we knew then and what we know now. The source material for the two writers is basically the same collection of documents. John Wilson Foster takes them as literary texts, Mark Avery as uncertain data-dumps. Wilson Foster makes a beautiful blues out of the accumulation of other people’s writings, though he never once says ‘I’ and he never tells us why he might care. Avery attends with a scientist’s rigor to shifting baselines (the way we accept what we started out with as a kind of plenum of being) and the Allee effect (why things might get tougher at the end of the life of a species). He tests the old figures, makes lots of new calculations and shows his working. His writing is efficient and sober but not entirely dry-eyed. Nicely so: he is more than sorry to be travelling through a spectral world. But he is also a conservationist (the former conservation director of the RSPB) and wants to bring the lessons of extinction home and up to date: fuelled by his findings in North America his last chapter comes back to a present-day British concern and the near extirpation of the turtle dove as a breeding bird in Britain. There is something else, slightly odd and perhaps unwitting, going on too in A Message from Martha. In a book that has much to say about appetites (human and avian) his writing is oddly preoccupied with authorial consumption. He mentions his carbon footprint a couple of times but on every other page or so he also tells us what he ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and in between those times too, in some detail. This adds a certain texture to the travel diary parts of the book, and allows some passing reflections on portion sizes in the USA, but I couldn’t help seeing these calorific inventories as a tacit admission of something deeper and darker. We are continuing to burn up the world in all manner of ways.

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone and, even then, re-inflating a drawer full of old dried skins will not deliver you to a full encounter. It is hard work animating the dead. And both these books (highly worthwhile and readable as they are) show their exhaustion in places. One story, from another book, captures something of the maniacal destructive energy of our species and especially of our species at the time when its European branch encountered the paradisiacal plenty of the great forests of eastern North America, ‘Natures Master-peece’, and the home of the passenger pigeon. ‘Your foot,’ Wilson Foster quotes an early account from 17th-century Virginia, ‘can hardly direct it selfe where it will not be died in the bloud of large and delicious Strawberries.’ There are many other comparable descriptions. But if you want to know about the felling of these woods into the era of the end of the pigeon, read the magnificent history of lumberjacking called Tall Trees, Tough Men by Robert E. Pike. Amongst much, much, else he tells us about the etymology of the word haywire:

Haywire constituted the omnipresent and omnipotent repair kit of the lumberjack. ‘To go haywire’, ‘as easy as falling off a log,’ and ‘log rolling’ itself, are three authentic American locutions that come directly from the woods and the drive, and the greatest of these is ‘haywire.’
A ‘haywire’ camp was one where things were slipshod and always going wrong. The haywire itself – it came into the camp wrapped around bales of hay and straw, on tote-teams – was used for repairing everything: a broken chain or pieces of harness, a cracked peavey-handle [the metal hook-ended stick that the river hogs steered their logs with] or a whiffletree (always pronounced ‘whippletree’), a violin, a stove-leg, or even a human leg. There is a story about an old logger who ran a hay farm on the Dead River and who, while pursuing a family of bears one day, somehow lost his false teeth. He shot the bears and got them home. Then he extracted the teeth of the bear cub and with a piece of haywire rigged himself up a usable set of dentures and proceeded to eat the bear with its own teeth.

Think of all this, of all this language, of all these tools, of all this talk, in those woods that just before had been pigeon places. It isn’t so far from the man eating a bear with its own teeth, from a whole new world of men gone haywire, to Martha in her cage at Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The last passenger pigeon. She died just before 1pm on 1st September 1914. That will be 6pm today in Britain, hence my sojourn with the dead in Cambridge. The death of Martha is the only instance in which the exact time of the extinction of a species is known. The last ever Carolina parakeet died four years later in the same zoo in the same cage. It was a male called Incas.
Audubon’s words on the extinct seem more telling now than his pictures. Maybe we find the ironies and the poignancies more easily in prose than in paint. A few years ago in 2004 there was intense excitement in the bird world when the ivory-billed woodpecker was declared rediscovered, brought back from the dead. The huge black and white lumberjack of a bird went missing in the swamps of the south-eastern states in the mid 1940s. It is also known as the Lord God Bird – that is what people are supposed to say on seeing them – and also sometimes Elvis in Feathers – which both describes its quiff and its uncertain status along the border between the dead and the living. When Audubon saw one, in the days before rock ‘n’ roll, it looked to him decked out in Old Master-like plumage and he was prompted to shout ‘there goes a Vandyke!’ when one flew past. A rare bird indeed. Since 2004 there have been a few reports but nothing more tangible. There is a $50,000 reward for anyone who could provide one feather or even some faecal material. It doesn’t look likely.

Audubon died long before Martha. She outlived her mate, George, by some years too. After that she sat in her cage and waited. No real efforts had been made to preserve the species by breeding birds in captivity after the final wild passenger pigeon was shot in Pike County, Ohio in 1900. People stood around and let the last of this extraordinary refulgence of life die forever. Audubon’s observations on the speed and flight of the pigeon in his ornithological biography of the bird have a telling poignancy that he couldn’t have known. He wrote of the pigeon in a memorable and thought provoking sentence that also seems prescient: ‘when an individual is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer it passes like a thought and on trying to see it again the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone.’
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Tim Dee is the author of Four Fields and The Running Sky. He is working on a book about the Spring, and on another, to be called Landfill, about men who watch gulls.

John Wilson Foster’s Pilgrims of the Air is published by Notting Hill Editions and on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £12.99