Lessons of the Passenger Pigeon

Here’s a review of a book about the obliteration of the passenger pigeons in North America: Why the passenger pigeon became extinct.

After an initial read, here is a list of just three (of many) unstated premises:

1. The title

Passenger pigeons just “became extinct,” eh? This kind of language reminds me of a news article I read about the US military intervention in Libya, which went something like “bombs fall on Tripoli”—bombs, of their own agency, just happened to fall on a town. Nobody built them, put them on missiles, targeted and launched them toward other people, etc.

2. This paragraph:

Seneca Indians called the bird simply Big Bread, and told a story about an ancient white pigeon visiting a warrior with the news that passenger pigeons had been selected as a tribute to mankind. Greenberg gestures toward the notion that Native Americans harbored a proto-conservation ethic toward the birds, but that distinction breaks down as his narrative of destruction progresses, which is perhaps just as well, because our propensity for using things up is certainly species-wide. It was paleo-Indians who helped hunt megafauna like the mammoth to extinction, the Maori in New Zealand who ate the flightless moa to death, and prehistoric Pacific Islanders who extirpated more than a thousand species of birds.

We are just naturally hard-wired to wipe out species. The Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis proves it. If Indians weren’t conservationists, why should we even try?

3. This passage:

We did hunt the passenger pigeon to death, even if we didn’t quite understand at the time what we were doing. We also might have saved it, at least in token form, if only our technological genius and our conservation consciousness—two things that set us apart from other animals—had come together sooner.

We are just clumsy children, totally oblivious to the consequences of our actions. Only our “technological genius” and “conservation consciousness” (which we can’t have if we’re as aloof or naïve as the first sentence suggests, right?) make us superior to other animals, let alone to other species, like trees. Considering the following observation: “But the central question that Greenberg sets out to answer is how a bird could go from a population of billions to zero in less than fifty years. The short answer is that it tasted good.”, I am forced to doubt both our genius and our consciousness.


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