I was reading about Passenger Pigeons today, as I am wont to do. (Cheerful, I know.) Actually, it was serendipitous; recently, while looking up information on the Labrador Duck (see, Jochen, your cunning psychological pressure is working!) I came across Edward Howe Forebrush’s A History of the Game Birds, Water-Fowl, and Shore Birds of Massachusetts and Adjacent States, conveniently archived as a full text on Google. A few days later, I was reading Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America by Jennifer Price, which includes some of the best writing I’ve yet read on the subject of plastic lawn flamingos*, but also… lo and behold… another long description of the Passenger Pigeon!
Like some other birds, Passenger Pigeons tend to be treated more as symbols than as biological beings in the popular culture. We hear a lot about how there were billions of them, because knowing that a bird went from billions to zero tells us something about the natural abundance that this continent possessed and what colonialism did to it. And I agree that that’s an important subject to think about.
But think again about those descriptions. Birds so numerous that they cracked the trees, their young fattened until they were near bursting (to the joy of squab-fanciers,) moving in vagrant flocks that relied on multi-year cycles in the abundance of acorns and beechnuts, creating windstorms as they went. Hugely powerful symbols, living and dead. But also a hugely powerful force in the ecosystem while they lived. I mean, billions is a lot. I can’t really grasp billions, not even with Carl Sagan and a flashlight. But I know one thing. Billions of Pigeons would eat a lot… and excrete a lot.
What did the forests lose, when those billion birds stopped eating and shitting and living and dying? A quick google search didn’t turn up much, but it seems inconceivable that sudden, semi-regular influxes of Passenger Pigeons wouldn’t have had a major impact on the soil chemistry and flora of their favored nesting sites. We’ve only recently gotten a handle on the role that another, perhaps similar, seemingly-destructive force plays in North America – and like wildfires, I imagine that Passenger Pigeons would have knocked down underbrush and smaller trees, leaving the sturdiest and a crop of opportunistic new growth (although they probably would have been easier on the small animals.) To say nothing of the predator and scavenger populations nearby. I can’t think of anything that would be nicer for, say, a Cooper’s Hawk trying to raise a brood than the presence of a few million clumsy young squabs trying to learn to fly in the neighborhood; one wonders, then, if the recent incursions of Cooper’s into urban areas, with their own large (and more dependable) Pigeon populations, aren’t in a sense a return to the good old days for the accipiters.
In short, just like the bison that we almost lost forever imply prairies, and prairies imply bison, it seems to me that the Pigeons must have implied pigeon woods, and where are the pigeon woods now? What became of them?
I can’t imagine that no one else has looked into this, so I’d be very interested to be pointed in the direction of any literature on the subject.
*my true lawn flamingo story – in high school, I painted our family’s flamingos (they were a gag gift! Really!) blue and dubbed them lawn herons. The paint flaked off in fairly short order though. Friggin’ plastics.