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To the Passenger Pigeon

As once, upon the Great Plains, thundering herds
of buffalo, innumerable, held sway,
a genocide befell these dull-plumed birds
whose flocks eclipsed the sunlight, day on day,

Up from the Gulf of Mexico they flew
each springtime, through the gauntlet of the gun,
to Great Lake woods where trees were getting few,
till billions of birds gave way to none.

The bellies of invaders, and their axe,
undid the future prospects of this beast;
their nesting grounds reduced to woodpile stacks,
while twice a year they shaped a settler feast.

This bird, by force of numbers, dimmed the sky,
till humankind ensured its passing by.

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“Passenger”: from the French word meaning “passing by”

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Paul A. Freeman is the author of Rumours of Ophir, a crime novel which was taught in Zimbabwean high schools and has been translated into German. In addition to having two novels, a children’s book and an 18,000-word narrative poem (Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers!) commercially published, Paul is the author of hundreds of published short stories, poems and articles.


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22 Responses

  1. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Your poem made me research the passenger pigeon. I learned several things of interest to me: 1.) The last passenger pigeon died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo and was named Martha. 2.) They could fly up to 62 mph. 3.) They primarily inhabited the eastern U.S. where they ate primarily “mast,” chestnuts, and acorns. They also were in Kansas and Oklahoma. 4.) They were a major source of meat for the Native Americans, settlers, and eastern dinner tables. 5.) They are estimated to have had a population of 3-5 billion in the mid-1800s. 6.) Native Americans would hunt and kill the juveniles which were easy to hunt at night and could be knocked down by long poles.

    Here is a Wikipedia recounting: “The passenger pigeon was an important source of food for the people of North America. Native Americans ate pigeons, and tribes near nesting colonies would sometimes move to live closer to them and eat the juveniles, killing them at night with long poles. Many Native Americans were careful not to disturb the adult pigeons, and instead ate only the juveniles as they were afraid that the adults might desert their nesting grounds; in some tribes, disturbing the adult pigeons was considered a crime. Away from the nests, large nets were used to capture adult pigeons, sometimes up to 800 at a time. Low-flying pigeons could be killed by throwing sticks or stones. At one site in Oklahoma, the pigeons leaving their roost every morning flew low enough that the Cherokee could throw clubs into their midst, which caused the lead pigeons to try to turn aside and in the process created a blockade that resulted in a large mass of flying, easily hit pigeons. Among the game birds, passenger pigeons were second only to the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) in terms of importance for the Native Americans living in the southeastern United States. The bird’s fat was stored, often in large quantities, and used as butter. Archaeological evidence supports the idea that Native Americans ate the pigeons frequently prior to colonization.”

    Your poem gave me an historical insight and was well written. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      In other words, American Indians were just as tough on these birds as the European settlers were. The only difference is that the Europeans had advanced weaponry like firearms, and iron axes to fell timber.

      But Paul blames “the invaders,” even though if the Indians had possessed firearms and iron axes they too would have killed plenty of them and hastened their extinction. Once again, dear reader, look for the anti-Western culture bias.

      Minor note: the correct word is “gantlet,” referring to the ordeal of passing through a line of attackers. A “gauntlet” is a glove.

      Reply
      • Paul A. Freeman

        American Indians sustainably exploited a resource, Joseph. Just read the information Roy found on the subject.

        I suggest you check the meaning of ‘running the gauntlet’ (from the Swedish word ‘gatlopp’) on any search engine. I’ve found, amongst others, ‘If you run the gauntlet, you go through an unpleasant experience in which a lot of people criticize or attack you.’

        Ironic, really.

        Thanks for reading.

      • Paul A. Freeman

        I don’t understand why you’re getting so uppity and having to dig so deep (or ‘deeply’, if you prefer) for excuses, Mike. It’s just a poem about a bird.

      • Mike Bryant

        I only seem uppity from your downnity perspective.
        I made no excuses, I highlighted your agenda.

    • Paul A. Freeman

      There’s a lot of interesting information in your comment, Roy. It makes the passenger pigeon all the more real when put in a pre-colonisation context.

      I first learned about the passenger pigeon decades ago, and an extinction on such an epic scale stuck with me.

      Another piece of information I’ve recently gleaned is that when Europeans first arrived in the Americas, it is estimated that the passenger pigeon made up 40% of North America’s birdlife.

      Reply
  2. Margaret Coats

    Interesting, isn’t it, that we now regularly use “passing” as a euphemism for human death? Thanks for dealing with these birds, Paul, in which I’ve taken an interest since growing up in a family that bred and raced homing pigeons. In addition to what Roy has told us, I know that mast, the bird nourishment produced by some trees, doesn’t accumulate quickly. After a visit to a stand of trees by passenger pigeons, it might be several years before there would be enough mast to feed a flock of any size. Thus the birds did not merely migrate twice a year, but flew very widely in a continual search for enough food, avoiding regions with much human population and consequent deforestation. Loss of habitat was significant.

    Intriguing allusion to buffalo as the poem begins. Buffalo numbers diminished dangerously, but here humankind took note and began conservation efforts quickly enough. From a minimum of maybe 1000 animals, there are now at least 400,000 in the United States and Canada, almost all privately owned, and once again used as a food source. Imagine that we could still be feasting on passenger pigeons if there had been sufficient skill, capital, and resource management!

    The demise of passenger pigeons is strange in a way, because extinction is more likely to occur in a species of small numbers and low visibility. I have written and submitted the poem I mentioned to you, Paul, on one of these that I may have seen myself, without the slightest idea it could vanish before I grew old.

    Reply
    • Paul A. Freeman

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Margaret.

      Although the American buffalo doesn’t thunder across the plains any more, we can only thank our God that they were preserved. The plight of the European buffalo was even worse. After WWI, there were only 14 or so left, but they too have been brought back from the brink.

      In addition to hunting and habitat destruction (the latter is what really did for the passenger pigeon), the bird was gregarious and only reproduced when the flocks they belonged to were of a certain size. That’s why it didn’t breed in captivity.

      The same fate almost befell the herring (the fish that when prepared to eat is known as a ‘kipper’ in the UK). Shoal sizes diminished due to overfishing and what was a mainstay of the British breakfast became a rarity. Due to changes in fishing practices, the herring has made a comeback. However, British tastes for kippers at breakfast time have changed, and the kipper’s not as popular as it used to be.

      Good luck with your poem. I hope to get the chance to read it sometime.

      Reply
    • Mike Bryant

      Margaret, according to etymonline “passing” referring to human death was used long before 1914.

      passing (n.) “death,” 1869, a euphemistic verbal noun from pass (v.) in such Middle English phrases as passing of death, passing of the soul (c. 1300). A passing-bell (1520s) was a church bell tolled at the time of a person’s death.

      Reply
  3. Mike Bryant

    The passenger pigeon’s extinction story is far more complicated and nuanced than “Americans with guns are very ugly and very bad.”
    The passenger pigeon was an “outbreak” species that throughout its history had natural booms and busts in populations. It didn’t always number in the billions. Historically the numbers were in the hundreds of thousands. The study below reveals that abundant species that are prone to dramatic population fluctuations are as vulnerable to extinction as isolated species, like the dodo (another pigeon!).
    https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1401526111
    For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. – H. L. Mencken

    Today, squab is something of a delicacy… delicious, but in short supply. The problem is that a mating pair of pigeons may only produce six chicks a year, while chickens can produce over two hundred each. I’m afraid that a Kentucky Fried Squab franchise just isn’t in the cards.

    The word “genocide” cannot be applied to birds and buffalos.
    The word “genocide” was coined to describe the Jewish Holocaust.
    To use the word “genocide” to describe the killing of animals is beyond wrong.

    Were Americans “settlers” or “invaders”? You can’t have it both ways.

    The loss of passenger pigeons and dodos is lamentable but lessons have been learned. The whooping crane story proves it. I’m sure that Americans in every state can tell of successes saving a toad or snail or whooping crane here and there. We have learned the lessons of history… when do the lashings stop?

    Also, to get things into perspective…
    Worldwide, over two hundred million (200,000,000) chickens are slaughtered every day. That is over a billion (1,000,000,000) chickens every five days or about seventy-five billion (75,000,000,000) chickens every year that are turned into food for hungry people. People kill to eat and live. That is the nature of life on earth. It is NOT lamentable and it is NOT genocide.

    Reply
    • Paul A. Freeman

      First definition I find on my browser of ‘genocide’, Mike, is ‘the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group’. Virtually every other definition is the same.

      Applying the word to a species, in a poem, is called poetic licence.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Reply
    • Joshua C. Frank

      Paul keeps on spouting his leftist idiocy here to get a rise out of us. If we stop feeding the trolls, they’ll get bored and go somewhere else.

      More and more, I’ve come to believe that dignifying leftism with a response is consent, because by doing so, we’re playing their game and accepting their rules, which is exactly what they want. We think we can graft the truth onto something they believe in, when they believe in nothing. They have no Mars Hill, no Unknown God. Or, rather, those who do have such a thing will eventually join our side, as I did.

      Reply
      • Mike Bryant

        I agree Josh. I do like to point out the absurdities though. I know you are aware that wind energy threatens golden eagles, bald eagles, burrowing owls, red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks, American kestrels, white-tailed kites, peregrine falcons, and prairie falcons, among many others. The expansion of wind mills (wind turbines as the unenlightened like to call them) could result in the extinction of the golden eagle, the bald eagle, other birds and a few species of bats. I wonder if their care extends to living victims of their own idiocy or only to those species who have already been extinguished?

      • Paul A. Freeman

        It’s a poem about extinction of one of God’s creatures, Joshua. You can pack your paranoia away.

      • Joshua C. Frank

        Yes, that’s just it. The fact that their beliefs are blatantly inconsistent shows that either they’ll believe anything that fuels their hatred for all that is good, holy, and true, or they don’t really believe it, but will say it anyway to destroy everything we sane people hold dear. I don’t know which option is worse, and I’m not particularly interested in making a decision on that matter.

        Even the far-left Southern Poverty Law Center defines hate groups thus: “A hate group is an organization that—based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities—has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” which are later identified as “race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.” By their own definition, leftists’ attacks against Christians, white people, and so-called “cisgender” males (the unborn aren’t covered in that list but are worth mentioning here) show that leftists are as much a hate group as the Ku Klux Klan. (Conservatives are not a hate group because we attack practices such as transgenderism rather than the individuals who do these things.)

        https://www.splcenter.org/news/2020/03/18/methodology-how-hate-groups-are-identified-and-categorized

        Again, this is not intended as an insult, but a conclusion by their own definition of what a hate group is.

        To answer your question, I’m aware of the problems with windmills. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they were giant electric fans used to justify all the money spent on “wind power.”

      • Mike Bryant

        Josh, you’d be surprised how many of them are backed up by diesel engines…

    • Paul A. Freeman

      Indeed, Passenger Pigeons Poem is excellent.

      Thanks for reading and for directing me to Leo’s poem.

      Reply
  4. Shamik Banerjee

    Thank you for shedding light on these birds through your well-composed sonnet, Mr. Freeman. I read a bit about them and was shocked to learn that, due to the cheap price of their meat, they were hunted massively. This was a major factor in their declination. The couplet sums it all up and is synchronous with the illustration.

    Reply
    • Paul A. Freeman

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Shamik.

      The illustration is indeed, excellent. Hats off, as always, to Evan.

      Reply

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