Images of the starling murmuration do indeed suggest the massive flocks of passenger pigeons that once darkened the skies on this continent. It is estimated that one out of every four birds in the Eastern U.S. was a passenger pigeon before unregulated hunting decimated their numbers. The last passenger pigeon died in 1914. Aldo Leopold provides a poignant account of the demise of the species in the essay, “On a Monument to a Pigeon,” found in the classic book, A Sand County Almanac.
We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.
Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.
There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all. (more…)