Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book Review: "A Feathered River Across the Sky"

Joel Greenberg's A Feathered River Across the Sky (Bloomsbury, 2014) is not an easy book to read. There were times when I had to put it down for a little while in favor of something amusing, or just to go outside and listen to the birds sing. Greenberg's book is a heart-wrenching catalog of depredations committed by members of our own species against the passenger pigeon, ultimately resulting in the complete and utter extinction of a species once unrivaled in terms of visible presence on the landscape of much of what is now the United States.

This is not an easy book, but it is an excellent book. Greenberg has meticulously collected and collated accounts of passenger pigeon observations, both when the birds were plentiful and widespread, and when the species had been reduced to just a few individuals, eking out a miserable existence in zoo enclosures, being pelted with sand in an attempt to make them move about. He has brought together a vast array of information on the techniques used to collect, kill, and market these birds, and deploys it to great effect.

The scale and scope of the assault(s) on large nesting assemblages of passenger pigeons in the last third or so of the 19th century are outlined in painful detail, and if you can get through this book without tears welling up in your eyes at the wanton destruction, well, you've done something I couldn't manage. By the time anyone noticed and began to speak in favor of conservationist measures, it was too late, and then the dreadful cycle continued as collectors and scientists sought specimens of the species ... resulting in the hunting down of many remaining wild birds.

Greenberg has also worked diligently to recover accounts of the few captive passenger pigeons who lived slightly longer than their wild brethren, and his account of the life and death of Martha, the last living bird, who died in the Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914, is a lovely tribute.

I'm afraid my notes on this book may make it seem maudlin, or overwrought, and it's not, in the slightest. Greenberg's done a great job of presenting the facts and telling the tales. But it is a sad book, and one that should be very widely read, as it provides a terribly important cautionary lesson. Nearly a hundred years have passed since Martha breathed her last, and while great strides in species protection have been made, there is a very long way to go. We are much the poorer, now, for the loss of this beautiful species that once darkened the continent's skies, as well as for the many others that share its fate. Would that no other book like Greenberg's ever has to be written, but alas that is not likely to be the case, and certainly won't be if we don't absorb its lessons.

Highly recommended, and very deserving of a broad audience.

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