“The numbers are so great the sky itself begins to darken,” an excerpt from The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller

LBP Passenger Pigeon Flock Overhead from Lost Bird Project on Vimeo.

This video puts me in mind of the following excerpt from The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller.

Imagine it is some time early in the nineteenth century. We can pick out any year, it really doesn’t matter. So let us make it 1810. And let us suppose that you, the reader, have hewn from the wilderness a small area of land. Gradually, you have tamed and cultivated it, and now you are enjoying the fruits of season after season of hard work. You grow enough food, and rear enough livestock, to feed your growing family. There is even a surplus with which you can supply the fast-increasing local community.

The scene could be anywhere in the eastern parts of North America, but let us chose a state, just at random. Let us say that you are somewhere in Pennsylvania. It is an afternoon in May, and things are looking good. Perhaps it is too early to say for certain, but the year’s harvest promises to be a splendid one.

You stand in the center of one of your fields recalling with some satisfaction, and not a little pride, the back-breaking effort that you and your family have put in during the bitter winter months and the spring that followed them. As you lean back on your spade you grow conscious of a strange, far-off, almost imperceptible sound, a sound entirely unfamiliar. Unable to decide whether it is a rustle or a buzz, you peer in the direction from which it seems to come. Your gaze passes over the fields to your small orchards, which at last begin to show signs of bearing a decent crop. Then it moves to the forests that surround the farm on all sides, but there is nothing to see; at least there is nothing out of the ordinary. So you turn your attention back to the afternoon’s work, but only for a moment. The noise continues, and it begins to distract you from the job at hand. Although still far off, it is surely getting louder, and now it seems more like a drumming than a buzzing. Louder and louder it becomes, until all your attempts to ignore it and get back to work come to a complete halt. The sound is certainly coming your way and coming fast. No longer does it sound like drumming; now it is more akin to distant thunder, but with this difference: It is a continuous wall of sound rather than something lasting for just a few seconds.

Suddenly, a few birds, pigeons, appear overhead. Your first thought is that they are fleeing before the ever-increasing racket, and you start to feel some alarm. What catastrophe could cause birds to fly so fast in a frantic attempt to escape? Then you realize that this first thought was wrong. More and more pigeons are passing overhead, and you find it is the pigeons themselves that are responsible for the noise. It becomes truly deafening. As more and more and more of them come pouring in, the numbers are so great the sky itself begins to darken. Within a minute or two it is no longer possible to pick out individual birds; the multitude forms one dark, solid block. The sun is blotted out.

The black mass wheels about. It seems to turn as one unit, not as millions of individual creatures. You have never contemplated numbers of this magnitude before. It is a numerical concept beyond your experience or imagination. And the sound! Your eardrums seem ready to burst. Perhaps the ocean roars like this during a hard storm at sea, but you don’t know. You’ve never been aboard an oceangoing vessel. Now something else happens. The great flock has circled and the pigeons are landing on trees in the forest. Those nearer are coming to rest in your orchards. There seems no end to them. More and more are coming in and landing on the overloaded branches, already packed black with squabbling birds. Droppings fall from the sky like big melting snowflakes. Some are falling on your head! A new sound trumpets across the fields, the sound of splitting timber. The weight of the massed pigeons is so great that here and there it is too much for the trees; their branches can no longer take the strain and they crash to the ground.

There is nothing to do now but retreat in despair to the shelter of the house. Fortunately, the roof holds little attraction for the pigeons, and largely speaking they avoid it. After a brief period of inaction you venture out, taking your gun with you. After all, a dozen or so cooked pigeons will provide for the family. The gunshots do nothing to scare off any birds, but at least you have a good evening meal.

Three or four days pass. Then, as suddenly as they came, the pigeons are gone. Vanished. Did they return from whence they came, or have they passed on to new pastures? You don’t know, and you don’t really care.

There are far more important things to worry about. The growing crops are destroyed, the buds are eaten or trampled, the orchards wrecked. It is too late in the year to plant again, and the harvest that promised so much will now be a disaster. There will be little to feed the family and nothing to sell to local people. Nor will there be anything left for the livestock. The well is fouled, and this will mean a long walk to the river to fetch fresh water. The damage the birds have wrought can hardly be measured. An entirely new start will be needed—if, that is, you can survive the next few months and the winter that will follow.


Excerpted from:

bookjacket The Passenger Pigeon
Errol Fuller

PUP News of the World — September 5, 2014

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Each week we post a round-up of some of our most exciting national and international PUP book coverage. Reviews, interviews, events, articles–this is the spot for coverage of all things “PUP books” that took place in the last week. Enjoy!


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The Passenger Pigeon

This week marked the 100th centennial of the death of the last passenger pigeon, Martha. She was living in the Cincinnati Zoo as the last living member of her species. The Financial Times‘ Matthew Engel commemorates the anniversary in a feature entitled “The extinction of the passenger pigeon.” Engel writes:

No one knows when the last great auk died. Or the last dodo. But the last passenger pigeon’s death can be dated more or less exactly: the afternoon of September 1 1914. There was something else extraordinary about this extinction. This was not some marginal species, retiring from trying to eke out an existence on a remote island or a lonely mountainside. When the white man arrived in North America, this was almost certainly the most common bird on the continent, quite possibly the most common in the world.

Some calculations suggest there were 3bn to 5bn. Others suggest there could have been up to 3bn in a single flock. This is like the extinction of the house fly. Or of grass. Or, perhaps, of the galumphing, domineering, myopic two-legged mammal whose presence did for the passenger pigeon. As the title of a centenary exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington has it, Once There Were Billions. And then there were none.

Engel interviews PUP author Errol Fuller in this piece, and Fuller, who is a world authority on bird and animal extinction, has studied the story of Martha’s species extensively. His new book, The Passenger Pigeon, features rare archival images as well as haunting photos of live birds. Fuller shows how widespread deforestation, the demand for cheap and plentiful pigeon meat, and the indiscriminate killing of Passenger Pigeons for sport led to their catastrophic decline. Fuller provides an evocative memorial to a bird species that was once so important to the ecology of North America, and reminds us of just how fragile the natural world can be.

In a review of the book, Adrian Barnett of the New Scientist calls “visually beautiful” and writes that it “gives a fine account of the species, its biology and its demise.”

Preview the Introduction of The Passenger Pigeon.

Philosophy of Biology

Looking for an explanation of the most important topics debated by biologists today? Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Philosophy of Biology is a concise, comprehensive, and accessible introduction to the philosophy of biology written by a leading authority on the subject. The title is reviewed on Forbes.com, and John Farrell argues that “non-specialists should not be put off. Godfrey-Smith’s style is engaging, almost conversational.”

Peter Godfrey-Smith discusses the relation between philosophy and science; examines the role of laws, mechanistic explanation, and idealized models in biological theories; describes evolution by natural selection; and assesses attempts to extend Darwin’s mechanism to explain changes in ideas, culture, and other phenomena. Further topics include functions and teleology, individuality and organisms, species, the tree of life, and human nature.

Authoritative and up-to-date, Philosophy of Biology is an essential guide for anyone interested in the important philosophical issues raised by the biological sciences. Check out Chapter One of The Philosophy of Biology for yourself.

The New York Nobody Knows

Put on your walkin’ shoes — we’re off to explore New York with PUP author, William Helmreich. As a kid growing up in Manhattan, Helmreich played a game with his father they called “Last Stop.” They would pick a subway line and ride it to its final destination, and explore the neighborhood there. Decades later, Helmreich teaches university courses about New York, and his love for exploring the city is as strong as ever.

Putting his feet to the test, he decided that the only way to truly understand New York was to walk virtually every block of all five boroughs–an astonishing 6,000 miles. His epic journey lasted four years and took him to every corner of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Helmreich spoke with hundreds of New Yorkers from every part of the globe and from every walk of life, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former mayors Rudolph Giuliani, David Dinkins, and Edward Koch.

Their stories and his are the subject of his captivating and highly original book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. The book is reviewed on TravelMag, and reviewer Paul Willis recalls one story of Helmreich’s many stories:

Helmreich, a sociology professor at New York’s City University (CUNY), is at his best when examining these broader demographic trends. He’s less good at giving life to the colour and flavor of the city. A New York native he grew up in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a relatively privileged neighbourhood that borders Central Park. Maybe it’s this background that gives some of his encounters with new immigrants an awkward quality, such as when he meets a Honduran man waving a flag outside a Lower Manhattan car park to alert drivers that there’s space within and then asks if he can have a go at waving the flag himself.

“’Are you okay?’ he asked, a worried tone creeping into his voice.”

Helmreich reassures the man by telling him it’s alright because he’s a professor.

You don’t need to be a professor — or even leave the comfort of your favorite reading spot — to enjoy the city of New York through The New York Nobody Knows. Truly unforgettable, the book will forever change how you view the world’s greatest city. View Chapter One of The New York Nobody Knows, and tweet us your thoughts using #NYNobodyKnows.

A Look at De-Extinction on TED Radio Hour

What if you could bring an extinct animal back to life? This week on the TED Radio Hour, Guy Raz interviews Stewart Brand, an environmentalist and founder of The WELL and the Global Business Network. Brand says that we now have technology that is advanced enough to bring back extinct creatures like the passenger pigeon, a bird that became extinct when the last member, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. This year marks the centennial anniversary of Martha’s death and the extinction of her species.

This NPR segment, entitled “The Hackers” takes us to visit Martha in her resting place at the Smithsonian Institute. Brand discusses how DNA taken from Martha’s remains can be inserted into the DNA sequence of a related species, the band-tailed pigeon. More from Brand in his TED Talk below.

Check out Brand’s section of this week’s TED Radio Hour as well as the full broadcast.

Curious to know more about Martha? PUP author Errol Fuller discusses the extinction of her species in his new book, THE PASSENGER PIGEON. This stunningly illustrated book also tells the astonishing story of North America’s passenger pigeon, a bird species that–like the Mammoth and the Dodo–has become one of the great icons of extinction.

For a look at another extinct species that Brand mentions, the tylacine, take a look at photos from LOST ANIMALS, another book by Errol Fuller. The New York Times ran a photo slideshow here of rare photos of extinct animals.

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