I can’t claim to have read (or to want to read) all of the vast literature on the Passenger Pigeon and its decline, but I’ve perused enough to know that it is all much of a sameness, fact after repeated fact piling up into a story that is more and more familiar as this sad commemorative year goes on.
I’ve come to be more interested in — and sometimes more charmed by — those texts where pigeons and their habits and history are not the central subject, but rather where the birds flutter around the edges, as it were.
On May 6, 1721, the Jesuit explorer and historian Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix found himself becalmed at Quebec’s ominously named Anse de la Famine, “the worst place in the world,” as he called it. To pass the time, he caught up on his “historical journal,” composed (or at least published) as a series of letters addressed to the Duchess of Lesdiguières.
“This contrary wind,” he wrote,
gives every impression of lingering for a while and of keeping me here in the worst place in the world for more than a day. I will overcome the annoyance by writing to you. Whole armies are passing without pause of those pigeons that we call turtles; if only one of those would take up my letters, then you might learn some of my news before I leave this place: but the natives have not figured out how to train the birds to that occupation, as they say the Arabs and many other peoples did long ago.
Charlevoix’s scientific, factual report on the birds is well known and widely reproduced — and apart from its early date, just a few years after Catesby, doesn’t really add much to what we know: the flocks once darkened the skies, they’re easy to shoot from the trees, they are kept and fattened to be killed and dressed in autumn.
But doesn’t the image of the homesick writer, looking longingly out the window and hoping that the wind will change — doesn’t that passage tell us more about the way the pigeon was experienced and what the pigeon meant than a whole sheaf of life history details? I think so.