In honor of the centennial of the passing of the world’s last living Passenger Pigeon, Martha, on September 1st, 1914, I dug up this old paper from college (2009) which I wrote about the fate of the passenger Pigeon. I don’t know if this piece of school writing will be of interest to anyone, but I recall liking this paper and had thought of re-publishing it in some edited form, perhaps as a non-fiction comic, someday. I thought that today’s sad anniversary presents a good reason to dust it off. I haven’t edited it, except to remove the introductory paragraphs. Unfortunately some of my formating was lost, so the endnotes aren’t linked up… I will fix this later when I have the chance. I hope you enjoy!
“The Bird is Gone” – The Fate of the Passenger Pigeon in a Transforming American Landscape
When the young Frenchman John James Audubon arrived in New York Harbor in August of 1803, he was disembarking in a nation scarcely older than his own 18 years. While Audubon’s native France boasted a population of 27 million, and Britain nearly 15 million, the United States held a mere 6 million persons, with two-thirds living within 50 miles of the Atlantic seaboard. As the newly independent United States entered the 19th century, the prevailing view of the North American continent was one of limitless bounty. The Louisiana Purchase, secured by president Thomas Jefferson in 1803, had vastly increased the territory of the nation.As Audubon was disembarking after his one-and-a-half month sea voyage from Nantes, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery were preparing for their two-year transcontinental journey. Lewis and Clark would catalog the vast new territories of the United States, writing time and again in meticulous journal entries of an almost limitless landscape teeming with wildlife; “wide extended plains with their hills and vales, stretching away… until by distance they fade from sight… enlivened with the buffaloe, elk, deer, and other animals which in vast numbers feed upon the plains or pursue their prey”. Within a few years of his arrival, Audubon would also have embarked on his own voyage of discovery, the audacious task of painting each and every American bird species for his life’s work, the Birds of America. A monumental series of four tomes, “large enough to require two people… to turn the thick, luxurious pages”, Birds of America included 435 plates depicting 1,065 individual birds, almost all of which had been drawn from life (or, to be more precise, from death: In an era before photography or binoculars, Audubon was obliged to shoot and kill the birds he would then paint; he invented a special board from which flexible, sharpened wires protruded, upon which he posed his catches in life-like attitudes). Audubon traveled around the whole of the nation securing his specimens, and delighted in America’s wondrous and Eden-like natural environs. But one particular natural phenomenon solicits a rare note of incredulous wonder in Audubon’s copious writings:
Indeed, after having viewed them so often, and under so many circumstances, I even now feel inclined to pause, and assure myself that what I am going to relate is fact. Yet I have seen it all, and that too in the company of persons who, like myself, were struck with amazement.
Audubon was describing, of course, the tremendous flocks of the Passenger Pigeon, the most awe-inspiring demonstration of the continent’s seemingly limitless fecundity.