From Billions to None


On New Year’s Eve, 2019 we left for a 3 month journey, mainly to Arizona, but to included other parts of the magnificent American Southwest.

Shortly after we crossed the American border I was shocked–absolutely shocked.  You won’t believe this. I saw wildlife! For the first time in our annual trips to the southern US we actually saw wildlife.  We saw a small herd of about 7 white-tailed deer in a farmer’s field.

At one time North America had more wildlife than Africa!  Now most of that has disappeared largely as a result of western “progress.” As we all know the 60 million bison were driven to very near extinction from which only heroic last minute efforts saved them.

The most dramatic story is probably the story of the North American Passenger Pigeon. In the 19th century the most common bird in North America was the Passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius).  It may have been the most numerous bird species in the world. Many people described the vast flocks that flew through the sky.

Barry Yeoman described how one aboriginal youth encountered on such flock:

In May 1850, a 20-year-old Potawatomi tribal leader named Simon Pokagon was camping at the headwaters of Michigan’s Manistee River during trapping season when a far-off gurgling sound startled him. It seemed as if “an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me,” he later wrote. “As I listened more intently, I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm, and beautiful.” The mysterious sound came “nearer and nearer,” until Pokagon deduced its source: “While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.”

Actually many people described encounters with passenger pigeons and all of us moderns find such report unbelievable, because we have never seen anything like it. Yeoman described one such report this way:

Throughout the 19th century, witnesses had described similar sightings of pigeon migrations: how they took hours to pass over a single spot, darkening the firmament and rendering normal conversation inaudible. Pokagon remembered how sometimes a traveling flock, arriving at a deep valley, would “pour its living mass” hundreds of feet into a downward plunge. “I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America,” he wrote, “yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”

One of my favorite writers, Aldo Leopold referred to their flocks as “a feathered tempest.” An observer from Columbus Ohio said one day he saw a “growing cloud” that caused children who saw it to scream and run home for safety. They could not understand what it was, for nothing else compared ot it  Women also hurried home at the sight. Horses ran for cover. Some people considered it a portent of the approaching millennium. Many dropped to their knees in prayer at the sight of a flock. Some flocks required more than 2 hours to fly by. In one case after a flock few over a town, when it was finished the town looked a ghostly white in the now revealed sunlight because it was covered in white pigeon poop.

Even when the numbers of the pigeon began to plummet the relentless attack was not stayed. In a fact according to Peggy Notebaert of the Nature Museum and the Field Museum, as the pigeons’ numbers crashed, “People just slaughtered them more intensely. They killed them until the very end.”

I love to travel through the North American plains, but it always makes me sad too. Thinking about what might have been. But, as they say, extinction is for ever.

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