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….