I was reading Indian Summer, by Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, an account of the years Mayfield was raised among the Choinumne Indians of California.
It's an interesting account, which includes a description of an ingenious traditional method of pigeon hunting. This involved building a blind from which one could snare pigeons with thin nooses. It had to be built in the right place, where pigeons would come to drink at dawn. “They liked to water at a spring or water hole near tall trees, especially pines. They... all tried to water at the same hole,” Mayfield wrote. “They would light in such numbers that sometimes they would strip the limbs from the trees. It would take these large flights from one to three hours to water. When they left a water hole, it was as badly drained and trampled as though a thousand sheep had watered there.”
That sounded oddly familiar. Huge destructive flocks of pigeons breaking branches off trees with the weight of their numbers? I'd heard that before – but it was always about passenger pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius).
“When they alighted on the trees their weight was so heavy that not only big limbs and branches of the size of a man's thigh were broken straight off, but less firmly rooted trees broke down completely under the load,” wrote Pehr Kalm, in 1759, of the “marvelous multitudes” of passenger pigeons.
I had learned this in a 1911 issue of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologist's Union. (Which I was reading at the exceedingly cool Prelinger library, where they have amazing old journals as well as books.) This sad issue was dedicated to the passenger pigeon, describing a bird that seemed to be extinct in the wild (and would soon be extinct in captivity) – but holding out the hope that there might be a few left.
The AOU had offered rewards for passenger pigeon nests – and been deluged with mourning dove nests. “It now looks as if the worst fears of the American naturalists... [are] confirmed, and that we are 'in at the death' of the finest race of pigeons the world has produced,” wrote C. F. Hodge.
Wallace Craig described the calls of passenger pigeons as he remembered them, in hopes that this might help people find survivors. “[I]f you tell a boy to look for a bird of the same general appearance as the Mourning Dove but larger, he will be sure to mistake some large-appearing Mourning Dove for the Passenger Pigeon. But tell him to look for a pigeon that shrieks and chatters and clucks instead of cooing, and the boy will be less likely to make a mistake.” Among other calls, Craig describes the keck, the
kah-of-excitement, and the keeho. He provides musical notation for pigeons he observed in an aviary, including the notes given by the male “when just about to tickle female's head.” The last passenger pigeon died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha, she was called.
Wait, so what did Mayfield see? Passenger pigeons ranged North American forests east of the Rockies. They were never in California. Mayfield just called the birds the Choinumne hunted “pigeons.” I think these were band-tailed pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata), birds which are hunted in California to this day. They live in forests west of the Rockies.
Mourning doves also occur in California – and across the continent – and are also hunted. But they prefer open and semi-open country. I've never heard of their flocks breaking branches.
I wondered if band-tailed pigeons were a west-of-the-Rockies version of that east-of-the-rockies bird, the passenger pigeon. Putting the names of both pigeons into a search engine, I saw that a brand-new study of pigeon and dove DNA had been published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. Contrary to the previous belief that the passenger pigeon's closest relative is the mourning dove (pointy-tailed, both of them), the study found that the band-tailed pigeon is the closest relative.
Kevin Johnson, one of the authors of the study, makes the point that a band-tail is not super-closely related to a passenger pigeon. "This bird is pretty diverged from its nearest relatives, meaning it had a unique place in the world. It represented a unique lineage that's now gone," he told Science Daily.
Well, obviously. A band-tail doesn't even have a pointy tail. Nevertheless, this is the closest thing we have left to a passenger pigeon and I plan to cherish the species on that basis.
It seems I am not the only one who find band-tails a workable substitute for passenger pigeons. Passenger pigeons were afflicted with a species of bird louse. Because the species was described only in 1937 (by Malcomson – I shall call it Malcomson's bird louse) and because it was believed these lice had lost their last home when Martha died in 1914, they were called Columbicola extinctus. But guess who else suffers from Malcomson's very same bird louse? Yes! Band-tails do.
It so happens that I had a band-tailed pigeon once, long ago. I found him on a lawn under some trees, too young to fly. I had no idea what to do to help him except take him home and feed him and name him Bertrand Russell.
(I now know that the best thing I could have done was to put him back up in the trees, even if I had to tie a shoebox to a branch for him to squat in, and then leave him alone. That way he would be out of the reach of ground predators, like dogs and cats. His parents would have come and fed him and said encouraging things to him as soon as I left. I wish I had known to do that. I still feel okay about naming him.)
I took good care of Bertrand Russell. He was old enough to know that he was a pigeon and I was not. Though he accepted food from my hand, he didn't like being around humans and that included me. He resented the whole deal. He perched on a high shelf on top of Walker's Mammals of the World (the binding still shows the traces) and thought bitter thoughts.
I raised Bertrand Russell until he was feathered out and could fly. I released him in good band-tailed pigeon habitat, a forested area where birders regularly saw band-tails, but it was an abrupt transition for him, what they call a “hard release.” I still feel bad that it was the best I could do.
In 1834, the traveller Thomas L. McKenney was crossing Lake Superior in a storm when a desperate storm-tossed passenger pigeon landed on his boat. He prevented the boatmen from killing it, fed it water and crackers, put it in a mocock (a birchbark basket), and took it home. “[T]hough only a pigeon, it came to me in distress, and if it be its pleasure, we will never part.” He named it Me-me. “It knows its name, and will come when called.” Boy, that doesn't sound like Bertrand.
I never saw bird lice on Bertrand Russell, missing a chance to meet a species back from extinction. But I saw Bertrand himself, a grim bird intent on survival, even if he had to put up with the attentions of a teenaged human. It's the closest I'll ever get to a passenger pigeon, and in retrospect, I'm thrilled about it.