Pigeons and Geopolitics

It was on this date, mid-way through the Seven Years’ War, that Generals Wolfe and Montcalm both fell, fatally wounded, on the Plains of Abraham. Even those readers not so fortunate as to be married to a Canadian will have their memories jogged by this famous work from the brush of a 32-year-old Benjamin West:

For all its familiarity in elementary school textbooks, this is still a moving bit of history painting. There’s something missing, though, in that clearing sky: the pigeons.

In June 1770, Ashton Blackburne, the traveling brother of a much more famous sister, wrote from New York to Thomas Pennant, reporting that the Passenger Pigeon was

as remarkable a bird as any in America. They are in vast numbers in all parts, and have been of great service at particular times to our garrisons, in supplying them with fresh meat, especially at the out-posts. A friend told me, that in the year in which Quebec was taken, the whole army was supplied with them, if they chose it.

The British soldiers were forbidden to waste their ammunition on the birds, so

every man took his club … each person could kill as many as he wanted.

Blackburne himself had

been at Niagara when the centinel has given the word that the Pigeons were flying; and the whole garrison were ready to run over one another, so eager were they to get fresh meat.

Surely to bold General Wolfe and his men goes the credit for the victory at Québec. But the Passenger Pigeon, too, played an important role. If not for some well-timed flights of that species, they might still be speaking French in eastern Canada.

Oh, wait….





Pictures of Pigeons

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Remember how hard it used to be to gather image material for study or publication?

No, you probably don’t. I can barely recall those days of drudgery and trudgery myself, all that time in the library and on the telephone and at the post office. Now, it’s all (or much, with more every day) out there just a click away — a circumstance that keeps me wondering why on earth, in this year of sad commemoration, we haven’t assembled more of the pictorial record of the passenger pigeon.

Even Joel Greenberg’s now canonical Feathered Riverwhich offers a good selection of images — not a few of them new to me — is limited by the constraints of print to scattered black and white photographs and a single sixteen-page gathering of color plates. Maybe Pinterest is the way to go after all.

In any event, here are a few of the many images produced over the years and the centuries; critical remarks on some of them are offered in Schorger’s “Evaluation of Illustrations,” Chapter 16 in his Passenger Pigeon. I’ve forborne from posting the well-known plates by Wilson, Audubon, Fuertes, and Hayashi, all of which are widely and conveniently available.

I make an exception for Mark Catesby, as many of the images credited on line and in print to his Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands are in fact from Seligmann. Here is the real thing, thanks to the Smithsonian Libraries and (again and again) BHL:

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According to Schorger, Catesby’s painting was preceded some thirteen years earlier, “about 1700,” by the first European drawing of the species, in the Codex canadensis now attributed to the Jesuit missionary Louis Nicolas.

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The text reads, in translation,

Oumimi, or ourité, or dove. One sees such great numbers of this bird at the first passage in spring and fall that it is incredible unless seen.

(Incidentally, Nicolas’s other work, the Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales, which appears to be known almost exclusively to botanists, includes an entire chapter on the passenger pigeon, unmentioned, if rightly I remember, in Schorger and in Greenberg.)

Thomas Pennant’s Arctic Zoology poses a passenger pigeon alongside its smaller cousin, the mourning dove:

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Mathurin Brisson rightly praised Johann Leonhard Frisch’s plate in the Vorstellung as “icon accurata”:

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He could also have mentioned that it is one of the loveliest depictions of the bird ever published, a distinction that separates it vastly from the raggedy pigeon shown in Forster’s translation of Kalm’s Travels:

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Surprisingly, E. Lear (I assume that E. Lear) was hardly more successful in the pigeon he drew for Prideaux John Selby’s Pigeons.

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I can’t say that the figure in the Planches enluminées is too much better.

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Eyton gets it closer to right in his History of Rarer British Birds.

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William Pope painted his bird in 1835.

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From earlier in the nineteenth century, the notorious Pauline Knip’s pigeon pair is decorative, but both birds are too obviously dead and stuffed for my taste.

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Both sexes are also shown in De Kay’s Zoology of New York:

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Henry Leonard Meyer’s colored portrait, almost two hundred years old now, has an orientalizing lightness to it that still appeals to my twenty-first-century eyes (Schorger, a sterner critic than I am, says “no merit as to drawing and coloring”).

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Copied and imitated and plagiarized again and again, the appealing woodcut in Thomas Nuttall’s Manual seems familiar even to eyes that have never seen it.

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It is not clear to me just who is responsible for the plate in Morris’s History of British Birds, whether Alexander Lydon or another painter; in any event, this is not a work many artists would rush to claim.

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Still, it’s better than the infamous image of half a dozen shockingly colorful, big-footed birds in Studer:

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I prefer the justifiably wary birds in the background of this plate from the same work:

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Published in the same year as the death of the last pigeon, Bruce Horsfall’s bird looks a bit too much like a mourning dove, I think.

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The passenger pigeon survived, at least in dribs and drabs, well into the age of photography. Martha, the last known individual of the species, may have been the most pictured of all individual American birds before the invention of the digital camera.

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One of the last photographs of the dead Martha, taken by Robert Shufeldt while the corpse was still intact:

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The shutters didn’t stop clicking here. Sometime between now and September, I’ll post some of the published photographs of the dissection — memento mori.

Meanwhile, are there interesting and useful images I’ve missed?



The Degenerate Dove

The Count de Buffon died 226 years ago today, making this as good a day as any to see what he had to say about what was over his long lifetime the most abundant bird in North America, the Passenger Pigeon.

In the Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, Buffon dedicates an entire chapter to “Exotic Birds Related to the Pigeon.” The natural historian wastes no time in proclaiming his theory:

There are few species as widespread as the pigeon; as it has strong wings and the capacity for sustained flight, it can easily make long voyages: and most of the races, wild or domestic, are found in all climates; from Egypt to Norway, people raise pigeons in aviaries, and while they do thrive better in hot climates, they do not fail to prosper in colder regions, too, depending on the care given them, all of which proves that this species in general fears neither heat nor cold, and the Rock Pigeon is found in almost all the countries on both continents [Europe and America].

As usual, it is not at first clear just what Buffon means in speaking of “species” and “races,” but he removes all doubt in the accounts that follow. Doves from Mexico, Guyana, and the Far East are here identified as “belonging to the espèce of our European Rock Pigeon.” Unable to resist the poke at his contemporary and competitor, Buffon dismisses Mathurin Brisson’s Violet Pigeon of Martinique as “a very slight variation on our common pigeon.”

And the same, he writes, obtains in the case of

the pigeon of America given by Catesby under the name Passenger Pigeon and by Frisch under the name Columba Americana, which differs from our feral pigeons only in its colors and in the longer feathers of the tail, which makes it seem to resemble our Turtle Dove. But those differences do not seem to us sufficient to make of this bird a distinct species separate from that of our pigeons.

Nowadays, if most people know anything about Buffon, it is his bizarre insistence that “foreign” organisms were the “degenerate” derivatives of European species — which were after, all, the real species. In this year of sad commemoration, it surprises me that no one has pointed out the good Count’s disparagement of the Passenger Pigeon — and the hint, d’outre-tombe, that we could recover that long-lost bird simply by selectively breeding feral pigeons for long tails and subtle colors.



Where Were You on the Morning of March 26?

March 26, 1870, that is.


In the case of Robert Ridgway, we happen to know. The nineteen-year-old illustrator was in Washington, and he spent that morning in a visit to the city’s market, where he purchased fresh male specimens of the Passenger Pigeon.

The birds’ irides, he would later write, were

scarlet or scarlet-vermilion; bare orbital space livid flesh color; legs and feet lake-red, or pinkish-red…. Now extinct.

All that's left.
All that’s left.

Supply. Demand. Extinction.

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It was one of the polite fictions of the waning days of American oology that specimens were never sold but “exchanged,” traded by collectors who were guided not by anything as crass as prices but rather by “exchange values,” regularly updated in the oological journals and other trade publications.

Thus, for example, in 1914, Charles Reed ranked the eggshells of the Ruddy Duck and those of the White-tipped Dove of equivalent value and desirability, assigning an exchange price of 35 cents to each; one laid by an American Crow or an American Goldfinch was worth a cool nickel, and an even hundred of those common specimens could theoretically be traded for the five-dollar egg of an Olive Warbler or a White-winged Crossbill.

The really extravagant price tags — I mean “exchange values,” of course — dangled from boxes containing the eggs of globally rare or extinct species. The eager collector needed to have a ten-dollar bill in his pocket if he thirsted after the egg of a Snail Kite or a Carolina Parakeet or an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and only the truly wealthy could afford to add the California Condor to their cabinets at a hundred dollars a pop.

The egg of the Passenger Pigeon, the last female of which died the same year in which Reed published his list, was far more attainable. At two dollars, such an egg wasn’t exactly cheap, but it was no more expensive than those of such common, if inconveniently accessible, species as the Glaucous-winged Gull and Orange-crowned Warbler. A lot of pigeon eggs must have been collected back in the days of their abundance, when, as Schorger reports, a single tree could support up to three hundred nests.   

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Just a few years later, it was obvious that the pigeons weren’t coming back. The American Oologists’ Exchange Price List of 1922 set the value of a single Passenger Pigeon egg at $100, twice that of the Heath Hen and five times that of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow. Scarcity drives even the most arcane of markets.

I have no doubt that there are still good numbers of pigeon eggs resting on cotton in long-forgotten drawers, and I suspect that the price wouldn’t be that terribly high if you wanted one. Me, though, I’d be content with this as the easiest way to remember that not much more than a century ago, the life force still ran through a bird we’ll never seen again:

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