A Brief History of the Passenger Pigeon

Not to be confused with messenger pigeons, birds sent behind enemy lines in war, but think passengers as in birds carrying suitcases, sharing a berth on a train, or traveling in bamboo cages on a ship, always migrating on a one-way to extinction. How would extinction look on a graph? A steady climb, or a plateau, then a precipitous cliff at the dawn of humans?
 
Nesting grounds eight hundred square miles in area. Skies swollen with darkening multitudes. Days and days of unbroken flocks passing over. Ectopistes migratorius.
 
And the last of the species, Martha, named for Martha Washington, dies in a cage in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.
 
Forget clemency. We are the worst kind of predator, not even deliberate in our destruction. Our killing happens à la carte, on the side (side of Dodo?).
 
And because the nineteenth century did not enlist a battlefield artist for extinctions, there are no official witnesses to the slaughter, just participants. If you could somehow travel back to this scene, through the would-be canvas, you would run flailing your arms toward the hardwood forests and the men with sticks and guns and boiling sulphur pots to bring birds out of the trees, as if you could deliver 50,000 individual warnings, or throw yourself prostrate on the ground, as if your one body could hold sway.

 

Lynn Pedersen, "A Brief History of the Passenger Pigeon" from The Nomenclature of Small Things.  Copyright © 2016 by Lynn Pedersen.  Reprinted by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.
Source: The Nomenclature of Small Things (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2016)
More Poems by Lynn Pedersen