Monday, 22 June 2009

The last passenger pigeon

You were fourteen, used to helping on the farm. Seeing a strange bird in the corn, you took the family gun and brought it down in a single shot. You were proud of that. How could you have known the blue-grey bird in your hands was the last wild passenger pigeon?

Your parents remembered the migrating flocks that took days to pass, blackening the skies, drowning out all sound in the thunder of wings. Such graceful birds; separating in a whirl of powerful wings round a predator, making a moving shadow rounds its talons. Safety in numbers was how they survived, how they lived.

Man was a different kind of predator; tracking them to their breeding grounds, culling them in their thousands, loading their carcasses onto the newly-opened railroads to the towns. When their numbers started to fall, conservationists called for limits, but legislators saw no need; it would be like protecting ants.

Seasons passed. The forests thinned. Settlers cleared the land. The weakened flocks somehow couldn’t reform. By the time the bill came in 1897 it was too late.

There were five billion passenger pigeons, they were the most common bird in America, possibly on the planet; and in less than a century you were killing the very last one.