Passenger Pigeons # 1

Trying something new here. I have either three or four new possible books on deck, though how I will find energy to do them all is a… challenge. One is natural history and ornithology, one a novel, long set -aside,  and I am not sure I want to say more about either it or the other one/ two yet. But the natural history has a neat 3000 word intro/ outline/ essay and a real plan, and I thought I might put that much in here as two or three excerpts, as the whole thing is only 3000 words.

I have developed the idea a bit, though more conventionally, in Living Bird; it may be available online there, as it was published a few issues back. My actual thesis is rather more radical: the PP, at least as we “know” it, is an ecological phenomenon. Human culture (Paleoindian burning, starting as recently as 12,000 YA) created it; human culture (as in our, colonial version) killed it. Read and ponder and let me know if you want to hear more. Since “Martha” the last PP, died in 1914, it seems an appropriate date.

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A
Feathered Tempest:
The
Improbable Life and Sudden Death of the Passenger Pigeon
“The
pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played
between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of
the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest
roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden
fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of
life. Like any other chain reaction, the pigeon could survive no
diminuition of his own furious intensity. When the pigeoners
subtracted from his numbers, and the pioneers chopped gaps in the
continuity of his fuel, his flame guttered out with hardly a sputter
or even a wisp of smoke.”
-Aldo
Leopold, 1947
Introduction
“Slowly
the passenger pigeons increased, then suddenly their numbers
Became
enormous, they would flatten ten miles of forest
When
they flew down to roost, and the cloud of their rising
Eclipsed
the dawn. They became too many, they are all dead.
Not
one remains.”
Robinson
Jeffers
The
passenger pigeon was not just a bird. Calling it a “biological
storm,” as Aldo Leopold did, was an understatement; it was more
like a series of simultaneous biological hurricanes, blowing all the
time. At its population’s peak, four to five billion pigeons roared
over the forests and prairies of the east and midwest, a number equal
to the entire population of overwintering birds in the U.S.. A single
flock in motion could darken the sky over 180 square miles. One
recorded breeding colony in Wisconsin in 1871 was 125 miles long and
between six and eight miles wide. Such a flock could consume two and
ten million liters of food a day.
The
passenger pigeon is an icon, a symbol of the fertility of the
pre-Columbian world and our ruining of Eden. We Europeans came to a
world of abundance, cut down the trees, shot the pigeons, and hauled
out barrels of salted pigeons in railroad cars to the markets of the
east. By the 1870’s the birds were in retreat; in 1914, the last,
cutely named “Martha” after George Washington’s wife, died in a
zoo in Cincinnati. The pigeon’s extinction symbolizes the heedless
exploitation of a continent’s riches at the hands of our culture.
All
this is true, as far as it goes. But if you begin to consider the
conventional narrative, to look at the tale through contemporary
scientific eyes, it begins to look curiously thin.
Such
a biological phenomenon could not have acted in a void. Modern
ecological thinking shows us that if you subtract a species that once
consisted of 40% of all the birds in North America, you lose or
change more than just a bird. Passenger pigeons fed on enormous
amounts of “mast,” the nuts produced by the dominant species of
the eastern hardwood forest: white oak, beech, and chestnut. Of
these, two are at least mildly in retreat today relative to other
species, one seems to have fewer “crops,” and one is ecologically
if not genetically extinct. Other species of plants also seem to be
affected. Berries from no fewer than eleven families were dispersed
by passenger pigeons, and some now rarely fall at any distance from
their parent plant.
The
pure physical effect of the flocks would have been like nothing that
exists on the planet today. The weight of the pigeons and their nests
damaged the forest like a hurricane, breaking limbs and even toppling
trees. But no hurricane would also leave inches of nitrogen-rich
droppings on the forest floor. Contemporary observers said the ground
looked “snow-covered” after the pigeons passed. The droppings
first killed grasses and understory vegetation, then promoted riotous
growth a year or two down the line.
Other
species could not help but be affected. The recently-rediscovered
ivory- billed woodpecker prefers to feed in dead trees; could the
loss of such abundant provisions have contributed to its near
extinction? The pigeon’s demise may also have had an impact on
such creatures as the Bachman’s, blue-winged, and golden-winged
warbler, the Carolina parakeet, the eastern box turtle, and the
American burying beetle. The term “keystone species” has become a
part of our common understanding: a species so important that
knocking it from its place in the ecological arch causes a tumbling
cascade of change and destruction. The more one looks at the
passenger pigeon, the more it looks like the “mother of all
keystone species”.
I
first began looking into the importance of this bird during an
internet discussion among some friends, mostly naturalists and
biologists, on rare and extinct birds. Someone asked a question about
the pigeon. I had been reading about the Pleistocene extinctions, the
coming of humans to the continent, and about the effect of fire on
landscapes. Suddenly, all of these phenomena looked to be related.
Some of the “facts” about the pigeon and about pre-Columbian
America in general began to appear very strange. Things contrary to
our simple myths began to emerge from the mist.
During
the last glaciation, cold steppes existed as far south as the
latitude of modern Delaware. South of this ecosystem was an extensive
band of boreal forest, which also covered the Rockies, and much of
the plains south of glacial-edge steppes were forested as well.
Piñon-juniper savannah, better-watered than today, covered much of
the southwest. Tropical ecosystems in Mexico may have been drier than
today, but were in much the same place. Deciduous forest occupied
only a fraction of its later space on the continent.
So,
where were the pigeons?

What is this man DOING?

And how long is he likely to be doing it?

From the cover of a new issue of a venerable outdoor mag that employs several friends, a “re- creation” of a 1912 cover. Well, sorta, kinda…

But: how many times has this man been on a horse?

How long do you think the horse’s ears will be pointed forward. after he shoots over them?

How long do you think his feet will be in the stirrups?

As he is not even using a hasty sling, where do you think the rifle will be?

Where do you think he will be?

Where will the horse be?

What will happen to his quarry? Where will IT be?

Myself, I would never shoot over a horse’s head with anything; hold a rifle like that while shooting offhand, never mind from a horse which I wouldn’t do; or hold the reins with the gun like that.*  Most likely I would get off the horse, and look for a more supported shooting position. This may be because I  have some deficiencies in horsemanship and accuracy, but also because at 63 I am aware of that fact.

If I did shoot off a horse, I would likely find out if the horse was used to it or not, use a .30-30 or other mild old lever rifle, and point it away from the horse’s head. And still not hold the reins like that.

Also, look at the position of the butt on the hunter’s shoulder. If it is (and it no doubt is) a .300-plus Short Magnum or other loud barrel- burner invented less than ten years ago, it is not only going to make the horse shoot straight up in the air,  it’s gonna hurt his shoulder and his cheek, before it hits the ground and breaks its stock. That’s OK, because he probably wouldn’t have hit his elk anyway, having bought his rifle and scope on the way to the airport (as one of the clients at a hunting camp Libby used to cook for did), and then laughingly refused to sight it in (ditto).

His clothes sure are clean and pressed (though why on earth does he need camo in this situation?), but if he cheeks the stock properly, his hat brim will be in the way. Trust me on that.

O tempora! O mores!

* The 1912 cover, unfortunately about the size of a postage stamp, shows a cowboy shooting what I think is a lever action at a 3/4 angle away from the head of the horse, with dropped reins trailing on the ground.

Quotes on Boooks and Writing

From Larry McMurtry:

“The reader might well ask why this account of the expanding and contracting of my various libraries matters at all.

“I could give several answers to the question but the simplest one is that you write what you’ve read, to a large degree– and, just as importantly, you write what you will someday reread. I am now entering the time of rereading and am assembling the hundred books or so that I keep with me tore read as long as I’m here.These are the books that, over about six decades, have meant the most tome; it is because of their combined weight and tone that I have become the kind of writer  I now am.”

Except for the number– I would at a younger 63 find that impossible– yes.  And the same incidentally for firearms… though well LESS than 100 there!

And from Malcolm Brooks:

“”…to poach from J. Frank Dobie,, I guess I try to be an aristocrat in taste, but a democrat in principle… I’m glad I can be moved to tears by Dylan, or Dylan Thomas, or Thomas McGuane, or have my socks knocked off by all manner of things that somehow get into the realm of the ineffable IT. A fluted Clovis point. A Rodin.   A Harley panhead. A girl in a sundress.

“I don’t think anyone can achieve perfection, but I pretty much bow to the small number of people in this gloriously messy world who strive to. Somebody asked me not long ago who my heroes were, and I said Teddy Roosevelt and Keith Richards.  From this particular vantage in history, I can’t see the contradiction.”

Stay tuned…

Two rather biological quotes

From William Hamilton, the eccentric genius whose new biography is on the way, and from our old neighbor David Quammen, who chronicled Bill’s demise from the complications of malaria meds in his Spillover,  review on deck at last…

Hamilton, from volume 3 of his collected works:

“For me it seems that the universe only needs to be beautiful, my ‘science’ no more consistent or less tragic than Antigone’s story or her sculpted head.”

And David’s rejoinder, to a scientist collecting bat samples in Uganda in hopes of finding Marburg and Ebola:

“Wait a minute, lemme get this straight: You’re in a cave in Uganda, surrounded by Marburg and rabies and black forest cobras, wading through a slurry of dead bats, getting hit in the face by live ones like Tippi Hedren in The Birds, and the walls are alive with thirsty ticks, and you can hardly breathe, and you can hardly see, and…you’ve got time to be claustrophic?

More from both these sources coming.

Returning with links and quotes

Busy, busy, busy, with lots of work and lots and lots of visitors– great stuff except exhaustion makes me sleepless and “Parky”. Lots of links, many quotes, news (the biggest for me: negotiating to reprint 5 backlist books including Eagle Dreams!) Sportsman’s Library out and getting praise, and new book prospects getting more likely, with several possibilities…

Nor is all the news  “all about me”, either. My friend Malcolm Broooks, who found me my best-ever rifle, my Mannlicher-Schonauer 1903 takedown,  has sold what may be the best first novel I have ever read, and a contender for more than that. Cat has her photo project about the world’s pastoralists and the Transhumance up and running. Anne Proulx is deep in research & writing for her next.  I am on the new board of the “Amigos” of the unique Sevilleta refuge— look for more from there soon

Geneticist and Blog commenter Federico has given me an opening, a possible way to study the “salukoid” genome, so we may at last speak with more knowledge than mere (loud) opinion.

Shiri Hoshen’s  Larissa (born here) and Tavi (born in Virginia at Vladimir’s) are having pups soon up near Santa Fe– pix when she is visible.  I’ll try around or on Wed the 17th when we head north to see Tom Russell play with Ian Tyson, who has miraculously regained his voice! Maybe they will do the “Damn Chicken song” for grandson Eli, who has been listening to Tom since he was in the womb. John Burchard’s Tigger, born here, is also pregnant.

Tom Russell also did an almost embarassingly complimentary piece on me in Ranch and Reata— check out that fine magazine.

Despite struggles in health, writing, and against the usual idiots, life is good…

 (My first session with the little rifle, 100 yards, iron sights and three kinds of antique ammo– have improved!)

 Grandma Atai with Lashyn and Gallo above, and pregnant with Miss Riss below.

Tavi, Riss, John, Tig…

The rookery

Just a dozen miles upriver from our place is a Great Blue Heron rookery. I’ve often seen herons there, but never really spent any time observing this concentrated nesting area until this year. I was at the rookery today, waiting for the sun to rise to watch the birds that have gathered there. It was well worth the wait.

It seems so odd that this scene takes place in Wyoming. The herons seem so exotic. These images are taken from a position almost level with the nests, high in the treetops. I was perched on the side of a steep hill nearby to watch.

This is the context of the rookery, with the Wind River Mountains in the background:

 There will soon be enough leaves on the trees that the nests will be protected from view, but at least I was lucky enough to arrive at the rookery in time to observe both courtship behavior and nesting. As more pairs settle onto their nests, the rookery will become quiet with much less display of wide wings and stick collecting.

It was a perfect way to spend a morning.

In the neighborhood

Spring has definitely arrived in our western Wyoming neighborhood – all the snow is gone and we are hoping like heck for a wet spring. Our sheep are fat in pregnancy and tired of their wool – a month ahead of our regular shearing time. Our sandhill cranes have returned, as have the trumpeter swans and western bluebirds. I even saw a shrike last week.

Busy with spring chores, it’s been great to be outside in the sunshine, and to have a few wildlife encounters. Jim and I crossed paths with our resident mule deer herd that contains a few white-tailed deer hybrids. I’ve photographed various hybrids in this herd since about 2009. This hybrid doe is a beauty, isn’t she?

Here’s a side-by-side of the hybrid doe next to a muley doe.

We also encountered a nesting pair of Great Horned Owls.  Be sure to click on these images to enlarge. The patterns in their feathers are magnificent.