In memoriam Martha Pigeon

(Only a little bit about language.)

From New Scientist on 8/30/14, “Beautiful but doomed: Hubristic humans should heed the tale of the passenger pigeon” by Adrian Barnett, beginning:

This September marks a melancholy anniversary: the first of the month is the centennial of the death of Martha the pigeon in Cincinnati zoo and, with her passing, the extinction of the passenger pigeon. It was an extinction that 100 years earlier would have been inconceivable.

This was a species that moved in flocks of billions of individuals, so dense as to blot out the sun and take days to pass.

… The anniversary has been marked by the publication of three very different books, all focusing on how a species can go from sky-darkening abundance to a single, aged individual in a matter of decades – and what this may tell us about the future.

A pair of passenger pigeons, in a color plate by Audubon:

and notes from Wikipedia:

The passenger pigeon or wild pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) is an extinct North American bird.

… The common name “passenger pigeon” derives from the French word passager, which means “to pass by” in a fleeting manner. The generic epithet [Ectopistes] translates as “wandering about”, the specific [migratorius] indicates it is migratory

Back to the book reviews in New Scientist:

The most visually beautiful is Errol Fuller’s The Passenger Pigeon, which gives a fine account of the species, its biology and its demise. We also learn what a superb long-distance flying machine this bird was, with huge flight muscles, greatly enlarged shoulder bones and sternum for endurance, and a tapering, highly aerodynamic shape and falcon-like wings for speed. As Fuller emphasises, this was no dodderer, extinct because it was too stupid or frail to survive.

Instead, as Joel Greenberg shows in A Feathered River Across the Sky, it was habitat destruction that largely did for the species [though incredibly aggressive hunting also played a role]. Accustomed to peregrinations in search of patchy and ephemeral resources, passenger pigeons simply couldn’t adapt to the newly deforested, industrialising landscape of 19th-century North America. This, plus the odd fact that pigeons left fattened, ground-foraging young to fend for themselves for the last two weeks before they could fly, ultimately led to their disappearance.

In A Message from Martha, Mark Avery, who was formerly conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, puts passenger pigeon biology in context by comparisons with great migrators such as the Manx shearwater and the albatross. He then provides a detailed analysis of how humans caused an inevitable decline.

The demise of the passenger pigeon, culminating in Martha’s death, has been widely covered recently, for instance in the NYT Sunday Review of August 31st, in “Saving Our Birds” by John W. Fitzpatrick.

2 Responses to “In memoriam Martha Pigeon”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    East of Knoxville TN the Pigeon River and the tourist trap Pigeon Forge recall the days of the passenger pigeon.

    Locals used to catch yard pigeons and paint them appropriately, and pass them off to gullible tourists as passenger pigeons. This pigeon forgery gave the tourist trap its name. (That’s an urban legend, of course.)

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Although the New Scientist doesn’t indulge in its very frequent punning here, it does have a certain amount of language play: the cliché beautiful but doomed (applied to many objects and people, like the Nokia N9 and James Dean), plus the alliteration in hubristic humansheed.

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