This is the story of the passenger pigeon, which once blanketed the skies from Canada to Florida, breeding, nesting, and passing through more than half of North America. These pigeons were revered by indigenous Americans for their beauty and an abundant source of food. Early settlers, ornithologists, keen observers, and notables documented the billions of passenger pigeons that swarmed the skies in such large numbers that they would block out the sun for two or three days. The fluttering of so many wings would cause drops in temperature. The tons of excrement left on the fields enriched the soil. Their iridescent feathers adorned hats and they became a seasonal commodity in markets throughout the continent.
Until September 1, 1914 – and then there were none!
From Billions to None is the story of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, with the documented death of Martha, the last of her species, who died on that sad September day at the Cincinnati Zoo. It is a fable about the passenger pigeon and what happens when greed, disrespect for nature, what we today might call over harvesting, and how, in the end, there is nothing left. It is the documentation and, hopefully, illumination, of what and how fast extermination of a species can happen. It brings to mind the near demise of the buffalo and the American eagle, and our over harvesting of fish and fowl, and the cause massive outcomes of deforestation.
Joel Greenburg, who is central to this film, went on to write “A Feathered River Across the Sky: the Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction”. The image at the top of this post is from Greenburg’s book, which goes further in the documentation of this event. The book can be found here.
We watched the film, at times with a collective, audible gasp at photos of enormous hills of dead passenger pigeons, and how business manipulated political sentiment to continue the practices of killing thousands upon thousands of these birds. Some of you may have seen this documentary on your public television stations. I would like to encourage you to watch this short trailer, and consider asking your local library to purchase From Billion to None as well as “A Feathered River Across the Sky: the Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction”.