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On Fourth of July Passenger Pigeon Barbecues, and the Falling of Empires

by Matthew Frank

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

Someplace inside you, dear extinct passenger pigeon, lurks a force that remembers an era when your species was so abundant, the size of your sky-blotting flocks (oftentimes comprising in excess of 3.5 billion birds, a mile-and-a-half wide and 350 miles long, and taking, to the aghast human observer, over fourteen hours to pass over, the sound of the wingbeats evoking the hurricane) was second only to the Rocky Mountain locust, that plague of the prairies. Once, to the indigenous peoples of North America, you were holy; you carried the souls of deceased ancestors, and gave the communicative smoke to the fire, and inspired the sacred pigeon dance. Your blood healed our eyes, and your stomach lining, when dried and powdered, cured our dysentery. Even your dung alleviated our headaches, and our lethargy. You made us briefly pain-free, and a little happier. Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi tribal leader, referred to your flocks as “meteors from heaven.”

The trees of your nesting grounds once collapsed under the weight of your flocks as if the land had been clearcut, the poor squabs taking their first meals on the ground so often crushed, or drowned in the pool of dung, several feet deep. Seventy-two years before your birth, autumn, John James Audubon stood on the banks of the Ohio River and watched such a flock, “the air,” he writes, “[so] filled with pigeons the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell… not unlike melting flakes of snow, and the continued buzz of wings… lull[ed] my senses to repose.” When they landed, they filled their crops to the size of a grapefruit, with up to a quarter of a pint of the food of our farms. At once, they could accommodate 19 acorns or 30 beechnuts, or 101 maple seeds, fist-sized spheres of snails and earthworms, caterpillars, buckwheat, pokeberries, and grapes. The fruit of the dogwoods. The saltiest of the soil. If they found a new foodstuff they liked better, they, at will, could vomit up the old. Each squab had, according to an 1880 article in the Detroit Post and Tribune, “the digestive capacity of half a dozen 14-year-old boys.” When they landed in lakes and ponds to drink, “the birds that landed first would drown under the weight of newcomers.” Those who survived would make their way to land, flop onto their sides in the mud, and raise their wings into the wind to dry them before, once again, taking off.

The pigeons continued to pass “for three days in succession,” and the boys and men of Kentucky lined up beneath them with their guns and, into these bird-darkened skies, fired and fired. “For a week or more,” Audubon writes, “the population fed on no other flesh than that of pigeons, and talked of nothing but pigeons.” Families assigned roles to their individual members—shooting the birds down, clubbing the squabs from their branches with bats made of hickory, setting fire to nests and then vigilantly controlling the burn, scrambling with nets after the unfledged would-be escapees, collecting the dead in buckets and baskets, pickling them, salting them, boiling them, baking… On July 4th, families would dig their barbecue pits, and throughout the Midwest, Mid-South, and the Great Plains, Americans would celebrate their Independence Day by feasting on the charred meat of the bird they never believed was destined for extinction.

Observers, gobsmacked and grounded, claimed that this one particular early July 1880 flock contained 2,230,272,000 passenger pigeons, but, given that it would take a single human observer 25,814 days, or about 71 years (sleepless) to count up to 2,230,272,000, and given that the average human life expectancy in Kentucky at the time was 37 years, it’s likely that this number bears only the illusion of precision. Besides, the observers were too busy working themselves up into a panic worthy of the apocalypse to accurately count each individual bird riding the thermals above them. “The hum increased to a mighty throbbing,” one watcher reported, “Now everyone was out of the houses and stores, looking apprehensively at the growing cloud, which was blotting out the rays of the sun. Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words… and several dropped on their knees and prayed.”

Once, you were a stitch in this quasi-Biblical tapestry, the thing that people conversed about, even as they barbecued your breasts, and uttered “Happy 4 th, Ma; Happy 4th, Pa,” as they waited for fireworks and chewed your meat. They couldn’t stop. They feared you, and their bellies were full of you, and, after a week’s worth of leftover barbecued pigeon omelets, pies, roasts and fricassees, even when they tired of the taste of you, they still couldn’t stop being afraid. In eating you, they take such multitudes into their bodies, they brighten the skies over their homes, and mutter words like freedom, while denouncing the British Empire.

They compared your flocks to waterfalls and curtains, threshing machines and steamboats, scriptural storms, prophetic plagues, and the drippiest, droopiest of the Independence Day fireworks. America’s first symphonic composer, Anthony Philip Heinrich (called by one critic the Beethoven of America), who was to die neglected and steeped in poverty, penned a nine-movement opus in response to your migrations, the choral section intended to bellow:

In darkening clouds the wandering flock unnumbered fills the heavens.

The winged thunder shakes the sky and echoes in the winds…

The forest trembles crouching low

The waves roar on the shore

And Earth herself gives back the song of the legions of the air.

After you finally passed over, the towns, and the Earth herself, according to one report, “looked ghostly in the now-bright sunlight that illuminated a world plated with pigeon ejecta.”

By July 1885, your ancestors, once so beautifully dominating the skies, fall to mass deforestation, to the revolutionizing of human communication over distances via railroad expansion and telegraph services. In this way, your once secret roosting sites were made public, and along came the angry mobs of farmers whose crops you destroyed, and the market hunters, armed with guns, batons, nets and fire, rakes, rocks, pitchforks and potatoes, bent on selling your meat and your feathers, in the name of gaining another sort of independence from your threatening avian empire in the sky. They trapped you and named you, stool-pigeon, gluing your feet to round, stool-like surfaces, set atop tiny, makeshift teeter-totters, and, with ropes and pulleys, compelled you to teeter and to totter in a way that resembled, to the flock passing overhead, a safe feeding. And when your duped companions descended, the men and the women and the children raised their guns, swung their bats. They set pots of burning sulfur beneath your roosting trees, and the fumes elicited a vertigo so fierce, you tumbled from your nests and your branches like so much confetti. The juveniles, upon hitting the ground, were still so fragile, their bodies burst open. One described this as resembling countless “golden red apples” falling from the tree. In certain nesting sites, it was reported that over 80,000 of your kind were killed per day (per site!) over the course of about six months. Those who escaped and forged new, clandestine nesting sites were hunted down by private passenger pigeon bounty hunters hired by various state legislatures.

So many of you were dead and—in spite of the advent of refrigerated train cars and fancy restaurants like New York’s Delmonico’s, which included as an Independence Day special the passenger pigeon on its menu as Ballotine of Squab a la Madison (stuffed with truffles, pork, liver, ham, and pistachios, coated with madeira, baked, and garnished with jellied tongue, larkskin, tomato, and congealed veal fat molded into the shapes of shells and griffons)— we couldn’t eat all of you, and so you became feed for our hogs, and slave-owners adopted you as the chief and cheapest food source for their slaves. The meat of some hogs who fed on you was later ground in Delmonico’s kitchen, and stuffed inside the bodies of your comrades, morbidly returning you to you, as part of some serpentine and doubling-back-on-itself network of consumption. Your eggs were smashed for sport and, unlike the rock dove who lays an average of twelve to eighteen eggs per year, you, dear friend, often lay only one. Your great flocks disappeared, and yet people still claimed to see them, concocted ridiculous hypotheses in a meager attempt to solve no real mystery—perhaps, they rationalized, said great flocks were simply convalescing and regrouping in the otherwise uninhabitable deserts of the world; perhaps they were taking refuge at the tops of unscalable mountains, or beneath the matted tufts of long prairie grass in places like Independence, Kansas, the childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. “The flocks,” says the writer Jonathan Rosen, “were like phantom limbs that the country kept on feeling. Or perhaps the birds’ disappearance, and the human role in it, was simply too much to bear.”

Perhaps, in beholding another species that seemingly—via a complex network of cooperation— wanted to consume everything, wanted to dominate both earth and sky, we felt also a sense of communion we couldn’t quite bear, a plurality that unnerved us. And so, communion begat competition, ever that sweaty, explosive pathway toward the singular— in this case, us, as chief destructor. Of course, we have to wonder how long our own empire will remain upright. “If you’re unfortunate enough to be a species that concentrates in time and space,” says Stanley Temple, professor emeritus of conservation at the University of Wisconsin, eulogizing the passenger pigeon, “you make yourself very, very vulnerable,” and it seems he’s speaking of, and to, all of us.

You tried, but you couldn’t keep up with the carnage, and eventually your species succumbed to what Audubon called the sort of “uproar and confusion,” into which he “found it quite useless to speak.” So quickly, you—once the topic of incessant conversation—became the totem of such a gaping silence. And into this silence, we still light our grills, and cook the meat of different birds with which we, for the time being, still share the world.