Review: A Feathered River across the Sky

A Feathered River across the Sky.  By Joel Greenburg.  2014.  289 pages.  Cloth.  Bloomsbury USA, New York.  $26.00.

                Most birders are aware of the species that have become extinct since Europeans settled in North America.  These include birds such as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Eskimo Curlew, Carolina Parakeet, Bachman’s Warbler, Labrador Duck, and Great Auk.  The bird nearly everyone knows about, however, is the Passenger Pigeon.  How could a bird that still numbered over a billion in 1860 become extinct in the wild in less than 45 years?  As I write this review, we are coming up on the 100th anniversary of the death of the last Passenger Pigeon.  That bird, named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

                Joel Greenberg’s A Feathered River across the Sky – The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction traces the history of the Passenger Pigeon from the time the bird was first recorded in 1534 by Jacques Cartier to its extinction in the early 1900s.  The book covers topics from the pigeon’s propensity to travel in immense flocks and nest in huge colonies to its desire for certain types of food.  Descriptions of Passenger Pigeon flights from the early 1800s or before are hard to believe.  Some of these flocks were so large they took hours to pass and darkened the skies.  Alexander Wilson, one of the nation’s earliest ornithologists, estimated the size of a flock he observed near Louisville, Kentucky, as having over 2.2 billion birds.  Certainly, at this date, the Passenger Pigeon had to be one of the most abundant birds in the World.  As late as 1860, a flock of pigeons that passed just west of Toronto was estimated to contain more than a billion birds.  The largest nesting recorded took place in central Wisconsin in 1871.  This concentration of birds covered about 850 square miles (an area the size of Berks County) and contained an estimated 136 million birds.  The pigeons were killed at their nesting grounds for years but it was not until the railroads made market hunting profitable that the real slaughter began.  The birds were killed in just about every way imaginable.  The last two nesting attempts took place in 1882 on Kettle Creak near Emporium, Pennsylvania and in Monroe County, Wisconsin, and these two attempts included no more than one or two million birds.  By the turn of the century almost no Passenger Pigeons remained in the wild.  The last verified record of wild Passenger Pigeons occurred on April 3, 1902 when two birds were seen and one was shot near Laurel in Franklin County, Indiana. 

                A Feathered River across the Sky is a really fascinating book that everyone should read.  If you don’t want to buy a copy of the book, get one from your local library.  It is must reading for anyone interested in the out-of-doors.

Fritz Brock 

A Feathered River Across the Sky