Passenger Pigeons # 2

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I ended last with:
So, where
were the pigeons?
They
were always inhabitants of the deciduous forest, eating nuts and
berries. It seems impossible for the pigeon to have existed in
anything like the numbers it eventually attained. And a passenger
pigeon without its niche and numbers is nothing more than a big,
nut-eating mourning dove.
As
the glaciers receded, radical changes began. Humans invaded. Whether
small bands who hunted and gathered in the sea’s edge on the
Pacific coast came earlier, or whether, even more controversially,
some ice-edge hunters hopped over the margins of the retreating
sea-ice from Europe, the general consensus is that most of the new
Americans came from Asia over the Bering Land Bridge.
Recent
investigations suggest that the people who became Clovis Man may have
come down the ice-free corridor that opened along the flank of the
Rockies on dogsleds, taking only a few months. And, whether or not
you accept the so-called Pleistocene overkill scenario, most of the
big native mammals, a charismatic megafauna that rivaled or surpassed
that of the Serengeti, were gone in less than a thousand years.
Today’s so- called megafauna – the modern bison, elk, moose,
grizzlies, and wolves – are all from the Old World, just like
humans.
A
few of the new creatures had disproportionate impacts on the
ecosystem. Bison of sorts had already existed in the west, but the
new species, perhaps less constrained by competition or encouraged by
a warmer climate, helped create a plains ecosystem that lasted until
the buffalo hunters and the sodbusters destroyed it.
Meanwhile,
east of the plains, the clever new immigrant from Asia began burning
the forest. Most modern ecologists, following the lead of “fire
historians” like Stephen Pyne, now believe that the environment
first seen by Europeans was largely shaped by humans, using fire as a
tool. The plains advanced in runners that would eventually reach to
the east coast, carrying with it the open- country species like
bison, elk, and prairie grouse. They all ranged as far as
Massachusetts in the northeast, where the last pinnated grouse, a
subspecies known as the heath hen, would perish in the1920’s.
How
much the two species, human and pigeon, modified the landscape is
hard to imagine. Human burning encouraged white oak, and pigeon
feeding suppressed red oak, making white oak a dominant plant that
sometimes made up nine-tenths of the forest. The same fires created
“edge effects,” mixed belts of prairie and forest, rich in
species and food for pigeons. Pigeons broke down the forest and
renewed it, resurrected other plants from beneath snowdrifts of
droppings, picked up seeds and spread them in a rain of creative
destruction. Aerial predators feasted on the hordes; the large
eastern peregrine was finished off by DDT, but its first and larger
decline has been attributed to the loss of the pigeon. Even the
burying beetle, a striking red and black creature, has become one of
the rarest large species of insect in North America. It buries
carcasses up to passenger pigeon size, and lays its eggs on them.
When
A.W. Schorger wrote the last scientific book on the passenger pigeon,
in 1955, no one knew much of the background material on is
environment and history that is now slowly coming to light. He
lamented:
“The
life history of the passenger pigeon, including its extermination,
contained many lacunae and contradictions…It is unfortunate and
most regrettable that no competent ornithologist attempted to make a
comprehensive study of the nesting and other phases of the life
history of the passenger pigeon when it existed in large numbers.”
Now,
with new tools, we can see not just a tragedy but a window into the
complexity of life and systems in general. Australian mammalogist and
ecologist Tim Flannery said that the ecology of North America has
never been stable, at least since the glaciers. The passenger
pigeon’s tale illuminates and is illuminated by the modern science
of complexity, chaos, catastrophe theory, and self-organized
criticality. It warns us that small incidents may trigger sudden
catastrophes, an ominous lesson in a time of global warming. It may
give us insights into how suddenly species can emerge, or even to the
nature of species. After all, the passenger pigeon without its habits
is biologically unremarkable. In the words of Jeffrey Lockwood,
entomologist and ecologist: “Ecology is beginning to slowly shift
focus with tentative explorations of what the world would look like
if process, rather than matter, were the basis for reality. What if
we defined a species in terms of its life processes?”
This
book will be a kind of forensic ecology of the passenger pigeon, an
inquiry into its life and life processes as well as its death. We
already know who killed it, though we may not know exactly how. But
what kind of an organism was it? What kind of a hole did its passing
leave in the world? What can learning more about these questions and
their answers teach us?
Even
if we genetically reconstruct its genome in some future lab its
world has vanished; we can’t ever bring back the “life processes”
of the passenger pigeon. But we may be able to, in part, restore some
of the things that have vanished, using lessons we learn from the
pigeon and other extinctions. Above all, in contemplating the life
of this unique bird, we realize not only what we have lost. We are
reminded again of the strangeness and complexity of he universe that
surrounds us, and of how much more there is to know.
There will be more!

4 thoughts on “Passenger Pigeons # 2”

  1. Yeah, I'd definetely eat a book on PP's by YOU right up! Did you ever read Allan Eckert's "Silent Sky"? After mentioning it on the last PP post, I checked it's availability on Amazon–it's available, but a bit pricey(well, fer a peasant like myself it is). And other PP books were SUPER pricey! Dang! Regardless of HOW the hurricane of PP's came to be, that's one of those phenomenons on the top of my list to check out when I get that Time Machine built. Folks I've talked to about it act all sad and sentimental about such a loss(I GENUINELY AM sad and sentimental about such things!), but they are often the same folks that moan and whine about too many Canada Geese, city pigeons(Rock Doves), Whitetail deer by the droves in their gardens and lawns, raccoons everywhere, and coyotes populating the East and morphing back into "Red Wolves"–all things I have witnessed in my lifetime, and have been THRILLED to see, despite any inconvienances cohabiting with such wildlife can create(well worth the privelege, in my opinion). I'm sure if Passenger Pigeons had survived in such massive numbers to the present day, there would be plenty of people who would consider them "pests" and doing everything they could to eradicate them!(sigh). When I DO go back in time to see them, I WILL bring an umbrella, though…..L.B.

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