An Ode to Empty Skies

Community Online First The Local Climate

I have a long and complicated relationship with the passenger pigeon, an extinct bird which came to my attention one sleepless night six years ago, and which eventually became the subject of my novel The Sky Was Copper Blue. Writing about it, I hoped, would get it out of my head, but of course that didn’t work.

This bird was, simply put, extraordinary, a testament to the abundance of life inherent to an unhindered world. When Europeans first arrived in North America this single species of pigeon numbered as many as six billion, accounting all by themselves for a quarter of all birds on Earth and collecting into flocks so enormous that they blotted out the sun for days at a time. I’m haunted by one record from 1866 when one such flock passing over southern Ontario (my childhood home) contained an estimated 3.5 billion individuals. Reportedly it was 1.5 kilometres wide, 500 kilometres long and took 14 hours to pass, imposing, as it did, an organic eclipse of the sun.

Written records from those days can be more compelling than the wealthiest of summer blockbusters, like those of men throwing themselves into basements or under tables, certain that the screaming racket outside was an approaching tornado, only to be humbled and embarrassed to learn this riot of noise was the departure of a flock of pigeons. There are other accounts of oaks trees, centuries old and strong as steel, collapsing under the weight of landed pigeons, and of the droppings beneath their roosts giving rise to the best farmland known before or since.

This bird was a force of nature, allowing the spread of forests, the fertility of soil, and a great many meals for the people of the First Nation. When left intact, the natural world is capable of bizarre and breathtaking wonders. This bird strikes me because it was so staggeringly numerous, because it produced spectacles which once reminded us of our place in a sublime and mighty biosphere, in the absence of which we imagine ourselves kings.

We destroyed the passenger pigeon with concentrated effort over centuries, for no other reason than because we could. Entire industries appeared overnight to harvest this bird, raiding their nests without restraint, driving entire flocks into great nets for slaughter, often shipping the carcasses with such disregard that they’d spoil before anyone ate them. These bird also died for sport. When flocks passed overhead entire communities and cities would light up with rifle fire, killing many dozens with each shot, not for food but for fun. One man boasted of having killed 99 bird with one bullet, and when asked why not 100, he replied, “I won’t lie over one bird.” Even canons were turned onto these inoffensive birds, casually killing 300 a shot for sadistic pleasure wherever the military might existed. In the end the streets were littered with carcasses, many of which were buried as fertilizer or left to rot.

And when these birds became scarce in the final days of the 1800s, there was no suggestion of slowing down the slaughter. Instead the relevant industries dependent on these birds began harvesting them faster, taking eggs and young and meat and feather ahead of their competitors with no mention of conservation or moral objection. It’s difficult to know when the last wild passenger pigeon was spotted, but one account from Penetanguishene, Ontario, in 1902 is in the running. The bird in question was, of course, killed.

The species was declared extinct on September 1, 1914, when the last known specimen died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. After a bitter life behind bars, where visitors would throw sand to make her fly, the ethereal Martha surrendered to eternity, a devastating end to a beautiful creature.

This story inspires an anger in me, to know what our world was once capable of, and the delusions of grandeur which gave us license to destroy it. We imagine that we have evolved beyond such dire stupidity these days, when in fact we are perpetuating more casual extinctions now than in Martha’s time. Only recently we learned that 1 million species could be facing extinction in the next few decades if we don’t enact radical changes to our way of life, and yet we haven’t, snug in our self-proclaimed superiority over generations past, all while we fill oceans with plastic, level forests for toilet paper and land to raise cattle, complain about carbon taxes and drag our heels in the protection of fleeting wilderness.

The ugliest aspects of our nature were revealed by the Passenger pigeon. We are only too capable of otherworldy exploitation, of draining the bottomless well, and then forgetting a few generations later that our skies were once copper and blue with the passage of pigeons, as numerous then as we are now, and every bit as worthy of prosperity. If their extinction teaches us any lesson, it should be fear of ourselves.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes

This is a photo of Martha, the last passenger pigeon on Earth, taken in 1912, two years before she died, and published in 1921. (Enno Meyer photo)