Passenger Pigeons # 2

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I ended last with:
So, where
were the pigeons?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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?”
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?
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!

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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Feathered Tempest:
Improbable Life and Sudden Death of the Passenger Pigeon
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.”
Leopold, 1947
the passenger pigeons increased, then suddenly their numbers
enormous, they would flatten ten miles of forest
they flew down to roost, and the cloud of their rising
the dawn. They became too many, they are all dead.
one remains.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
where were the pigeons?

Almost a review

Libby recently read Jeff Lockwood’s Locust.

Her letter to him is as good as a short review, and the last line could be a blurb:

“I thoroughly enjoyed Locust. My favorite period of US history is the opening of the west during the 1800’s. When I was a kid we took many family trips to the southwest and up and down the Rockies, passing through the dozens of Mormon communities along the way. We used to talk about the difference the irrigation made in settlers being able to sustain themselves and their livestock. In some of our reading there were references to the locust plagues and we wondered why they weren’t mentioned after a certain point. The link between irrigation and the life stages of the locust is fascinating, and explains a lot. And I always wondered about the place names like Grasshopper Glacier and Grasshopper Creek, far away from the plains that I associated with grasshoppers, which it turns out weren’t grasshoppers but locusts.

“Thank you for such a splendid account…history, mystery, and natural history: my favorite combination in reading!”

Eevil Eagles

When I announced Darren’s new book (Tetrapod Zoology 1) I mentioned a Darren drawing that contained, among other things, an Australopithecine and a Socorro County calf in mortal danger. Here is the proof, in the form of his 2004 Christmas card (click on it to enlarge):

The hominid is the (documented– look up recent material on “Taung Baby”) victim of a large African eagle, probably the crowned (Stephanoaetus coronatus), which still occasionally attacks them in the form of small children– at least one incident in Zambia.

The calf? in the seventies, Audubon actually filmed a pair of eagles killing calves on the Tigner ranch, twenty miles south of Magdalena– the unusually predator- friendly Tigners had invited them. The culprits were trapped and moved, and no other eagles have developed the habit since, although we know an eyrie there (Tigner’s is our favorite quail- hunting habitat).

The third is the monstrous New Zealand eagle formerly known as Harpagus moorei— I think it has been reassigned to Hieratus or Spizaetus, making it a close relative of very fierce smaller eagles used in falconry today. It was HUGE– up to 45- 50 pounds, more than twice the size of any eagle alive. As shown here, it ate moas (bones have been found with punctures corresponding to the eagle’s talons). Apparently, at least according to Maori legend, it ate humans too– probably all upright bipeds look like food to a flying Velociraptor– and it only became extinct when the Maori ate all the moas (“…and there ain’t no moa”), just before European colonization, if then.

More in Darren’s book, on these and other large eagle prey. The subject was the occasion of our first correspondence, which continues…

Worst NYT piece EVER?

Unfortunately the Times is not up to Jeff Lockwood’s standard today, at least outside of their science pages. Last night Daniela sent me this essay by a philosophy professor at Rutgers who is also a visiting one at Princeton (which at least balances him and Peter Singer with Freeman Dyson, who outweighs them both together intellectually), suggesting that we must totally eliminate all carnivores in order to stop suffering on the planet. That anyone this immune to reason, or innocent of any knowledge of anything outside his abstract field, gets paid handsomely for using his brain at any college is a damning comment on our society, education, and of academia as a whole today. This should only have been printed in The Onion. I won’t dignify it by quoting further, but am considering a letter to the paper– think about writing one too (they have already closed comments).

And the other depressing fact is that, if you wade through those comments, the most common reaction after the sensible variants on “what a fool!” and “what was the Times THINKING?” is the one that humans should be eliminated, voluntarily or involuntarily. This hatred of humanity among our elite classes is almost as scary as Professor McMahan’s hatred of reality and incomprehension of what life is. Both are utterly fascist, even beyond Naziism in their implications.

Matt exclaims: “What a troubling, sad piece—this man teaches!”

Lighter reaction– Daniela accompanied the link with the following note: “Well, I’m just about to see whether I have any reasonable carne to indulge my heathen self in!”

And one last point– what must excellent science writers like the Times’ Nicholas Wade think about sharing space and money with such invincibly ignorant idiots?

Update: Daniela comments in an email: “I like Jeff Lockwood’s take on ethics! That would make Prof. McMahan a philosophiopath, for being too ignorant to know how to pose a philosophical question. In the Hebrew Hagada the one who doesn’t know what to ask is called “Tam” – “an innocent”…The text suggests you help him”.

I am not sure I know how…

Jeff Lockwood checks in: of Passenger pigeons and Cicadas

Jeff Lockwood, entomologist and first- rate writer from Wyoming, checked in re passenger pigeons with a link to an amazing essay and some thoughtful commentary:

“Great to hear from you! I loved your piece on the Passenger Pigeon (and thanks for the plug/quote!), having recently discussed 1491 with a colleague. Your essay elegantly captures the complexity of the human-nature (and human nature) phenomenon. I’ve been working on some fiction and it is clear that realistic (and interesting) characters are messy–neither all good nor all bad. All too often, environmental history reads like very bad fiction. Humans are bad (except pre-colonial humans who were good). But the real world is not so simple. Essentialism is almost always a caricature of existence, and this certainly applies to people. Maybe it’s a bit like I tell the students in my Natural Resource Ethics class: “Ethics is not really about choosing between good and bad. If you’re given a choice between good and evil and can’t figure out to do the good thing, then you’re probably a sociopath and this course won’t help you. Ethics is about choosing between good and good (or bad and bad), it’s about the real, messy stuff of deciding how to live when no choice is purely good or simply evil.” And as a side note, I have a few papers on catastrophe theory and self-organized criticality, so your allusion to complexity theory was also spot on! Finally, I’ve argued that maybe we do have a few, last experiences of overwhelming biological fecundity. Here’s my Op Ed piece in the NY Times on cicadas from a few years ago”.

RTWT of course, but a few quotes are irresistible– I didn’t realize some cicadas were also “biological storms”:

“In fact, if we do want to try to quantify cicadas, we have to deal with some incomprehensibly big numbers. When the periodical cicadas are in their full glory, there will be an average of about 100,000 insects per acre spread across an area four times the size of Pennsylvania. That works out to about 10 trillion cicadas, 1,500 for each human on earth. Fortunately, my back-of-the-envelope estimate is immune from empirical refutation. Even if the entire population of Philadelphia counted cicadas at the rate of one per second, for eight hours a day, five days a week, they wouldn’t arrive at a total for a full year.

“The cicadas will outweigh the population of the United States (even with our obesity problems) by a factor of nearly two. And consider the excrement that these insects are going to rain down in backyards and parks — enough liquid waste to fill 300 Olympic-sized swimming pools a day. A few weeks after their arrival, the cicadas will die, leaving piles of depleted corpses and more than 500 trillion eggs. In a single square mile of forest with the densest populations, there will be as many eggs as there are stars in the Milky Way.”


“Patterns are the rule in in physics; we can predict moon phases and solar eclipses with impressive accuracy. But we don’t expect such regularity in complex, living systems, and especially not in creatures with brains the size of pinheads. Our mathematical egos are a bit bruised by a humble insect that can count higher than a fair number of preschoolers. For that matter, could engineers equip us with several million (never mind a few trillion) alarm clocks that would reliably ring 6,209 days from now?”

Two of Jeff’s fine books I particularly recommend are Locust, about still another extinct North American “biological storm” species (is there something to Tim Flannery’s idea that our ecosystems are unusually unstable here?) and Six Legged Soldiers, a chilling history of the use of insects in war.

Dino News

Did dinosaurs go extinct 300,000 years AFTER the Chicxulub impact??

“We found that not a single species went extinct as a result of the Chicxulub impact,” said Gerta Keller, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University, in a release distributed by the Geological Society of London. “These are astonishing results.”

From the April 27 date I don’t think that this is another hoax but I am going to need some convincing.(And I thought the Deccan Traps eruptions were virtually simultaneous with Chicxulub).

OTOH I believe Robert Bakker had similar thoughts.

The next best thing to seeing the “fighting dinosaurs’ in Ulaan Bataar: a detailed series of photos.

Only, as I have said before, in UB you can TOUCH the fossils.