Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2014 (November 4, 2014)

Gone But Not Forgotten

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November 3, 2014

The 1914 extinction of the passenger pigeon offers a cautionary tale for our time

By Joe Engleman

FEATURE Pigeons audobon printOne hundred years ago, a passenger pigeon named Martha died in captivity in a Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last of an indigenous species that once numbered in the billions in North America, particularly in Wisconsin and Michigan, and whose massive flocks were so large they blocked out the sun for miles. Even into the late 19th century, their disappearance was unthinkable.

But they did disappear, a casualty of over-hunting and a diminished habitat.

For Joel Greenberg, a self-described passenger pigeon “evangelist” and the author of A Feathered River Across The Sky, the pigeon offers a significant historic parallel to contemporary times.

“The dominant, overwhelming reason the passenger pigeon is gone is because human beings killed them,” says Greenberg, who spoke at Beloit as part of a lecture series commemorating the species’ extinction. “Thanks to the expansion of the railroad, if you could kill your birds and get them to a rail station, you could get them to the burgeoning towns of the Midwest and the East Coast, no matter how remote you were,” he says, referring to the rampant hunting of the birds, mainly for food. “Then the telegraph meant that information could be sent out quickly and broadly. This meant there were national markets for the birds.”

These new technologies led people to believe that they had conquered nature somehow, fostered the perception that passenger pigeons were infinite, and helped speed up the bird’s extinction.

“No matter how abundant something is, whether it’s a resource like water or oil, or animals, like the passenger pigeon, if we are not good stewards, we can lose it,” Greenberg says. “The historic record shows us how biologically rich the Midwest and the eastern United States and Canada were. Forests once could support billions of passenger pigeons. Think about how much that has changed. The need to present this information in an accessible, engaging way, is more important than ever.”

That is exactly what a public series, interdisciplinary courses, and special projects focused on the passenger pigeon set out to do at Beloit this fall. The building blocks for a major tribute to the birds began rather humbly in 2013 in the Logan Museum of Anthropology. Dan Bartlett, the Logan’s curator of exhibits and education, was considering exhibits for 2014 when he came across Project Passenger Pigeon, a national effort founded by Greenberg that offered a free poster exhibit about the pigeon’s extinction developed by the University of Michigan.

“I knew the college had a pair of passenger pigeons in its collection,” Bartlett says. “I thought, ‘We’ll get this exhibit and mount it in the Science Center next to the birds.’ Since I was scheduled to teach the Museum Education Practicum class [in fall 2014] I thought, ‘We’ll develop some programs based on environmental education.’”

Among the tight-knit Beloit community, the seeds of collaboration germinated quickly.

Visiting Assistant Professor of English Christina Clancy recalls her involvement that began with an email from Bartlett. The subject line simply read: “Pigeons.” Over coffee, Bartlett and Clancy began hatching some plans. George Russell Corlis Professor of History Linda Sturtz also got involved, and she and Bartlett led a faculty and staff discussion about public history at Beloit.

 “That conversation morphed into a broader discussion about how we could facilitate our community’s engagement, broadly defined, with the humanities,” Bartlett says.

All of this came on the heels of a well-received public lecture series in fall 2013 about the Civil War. That series was well-attended by the larger Beloit community and helped create a sustained dialogue both within and beyond campus.

The centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction also made sense as a topic because Southern Wisconsin was one of the most densely populated nesting grounds of the birds’ great flocks. Much like the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction became a way to speak to a wide range of topics that intersect with all academic disciplines.

 “There’s sometimes a sense that talking about extinction and birds is something done exclusively in the sciences,” Sturtz says. “We wanted to make the point that this is discussed across the disciplines, and that the humanities have a part to play in thinking about extinction, our ideas about how humanity interacts with the natural world, and vice versa. What are the ethics and responsibilities of humanity?”

Sturtz stresses the importance of using a symbolic creature such as the passenger pigeon to center people’s thinking. “The fact that the events are focused on the pigeon allows people to think concretely about extinction in this instance,” she says. “We can relate to the fact that the pigeon is extinct. It no longer exists, yet it was so plentiful right here in Wisconsin. Then people can extrapolate from the symbolic figure of the pigeon to the larger issues we face.”

Sturtz points to the success environmentalists have had in making the plight of polar bears a central symbol. “It’s difficult to imagine all the implications of something as large as global climate change, but it’s easy to imagine the polar bear.”

Producing programming as far-reaching as the passenger pigeon project worked in large part because of a team of faculty, students, and staff. Funding also came through the college’s Pathways to Sustainability Leadership Program, which allowed three students to live in Beloit over the summer to work with Bartlett, Clancy, and Sturtz to organize and publicize events around the passenger pigeon commemoration.

J. Heinz’16, a physics major, worked with Bartlett to find contemporary parallels between the passenger pigeon and some of today’s at-risk species. Kris Robbins’14 spent the summer working with Clancy on writing and editing a blog called “GhostFlock” and laying the groundwork for other aspects of a social media campaign to promote events and raise awareness. Taylor Mautz’17, a history major, dug through archives of Rock County (Wis.) newspapers to find stories from when the passenger pigeons thrived.

“When Taylor was going through these newspaper accounts,” Sturtz says, “it was possible to enter the minds of these people. It seemed like there would always be this resource. To them, the return of these birds seemed like the most matter-of-fact occurrence—the pigeons are coming north, and they’re roosting all over and they’re a nuisance.”

As classes resumed in late August, passenger pigeons found a way to roost metaphorically in the nooks and crannies of classrooms across campus. Bartlett’s students in Museum Studies spent the semester learning how to make stories like the passenger pigeon’s relevant for the present moment. Sturtz taught a half semester course on the environmental history of the United States. Other faculty in the history department began looking into future opportunities to increase the environmental history offerings, with a particular focus on Beloit and southern Wisconsin.

Clancy’s writing students are no strangers to finding inspiration in the Logan Museum, as evidenced by the poems they wrote to accompany A Shadow Over the Earth: The Life and Death of the Passenger Pigeon, the Logan Museum’s exhibit. But Clancy also decided to focus her fall writing seminar on the subject of extinction. In addition to using Greenberg’s book, she assigned Elizabeth Kolbert’s nonfiction book The Sixth Extinction. The result was an evolutionary writing class. “I wanted to teach a writing class where students start out thinking about something narrow—one species [the passenger pigeon]—then extinction more broadly, and then, hopefully, about how this might apply to them and the world they live in,” she says.

Other faculty members and students found ways to join in, too. While theatre students rehearsed the reading of a play about the pigeon that would be performed at a culminating, computer-generated flyover simulation during Homecoming Weekend, education students attended and analyzed an all-ages discussion of the young adult novel One Came Home at the Beloit Public Library. That novel depicts the experience of a young girl in Wisconsin during an 1871 pigeon flock flyover.

In addition to the lecture by Greenberg, events in the speaker series included presentations by Professor Stanley Temple, a senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation; Maine-based activists the Beehive Design Collective; and University of Missouri-St. Louis History Professor Andrew Hurley. There was also a screening of the documentary From Billions To None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, co-produced and co-written by Joel Greenberg and David Mrazek, who also directed the film. Beloit’s 2014 Upton Scholar Robert N. Stavins is expected to further connect with some of the passenger pigeon project’s themes during a November visit to campus through the economics department. Stavins is one of the world’s leading thinkers on climate change policy.

After nearly a year of planning, the campus and community rallied around the Beloit passenger pigeon events. Bartlett believes that the success of the project demonstrated the desire and interest for this kind of community-wide, interdisciplinary programming at Beloit to continue. In terms of what comes next, he says, “The sky’s the limit.”

Joe Engleman is a Chicago-based writer who recently graduated from Grinnell College and is currently an editorial intern for Chicago Magazine.

Beloit's Pigeon Pair

FEATURE Pigeons Dan BartlettBeloit’s two stuffed passenger pigeons used to reside under the watchful eye of the college’s biology department, but now the preserved male and female typically sit under a bell jar in the Logan Museum of Anthropology. A young man named S.W. Willard preserved the birds in the 1880s using arsenic and mounted them on a perch. Later, his parents decided to donate them to Beloit College. Visiting Assistant Professor of English Christina Clancy describes the stuffed birds as a bit frayed. “One has a nail through its head and its head wasn’t quite put on right. The other’s tail was detached,” she says. Dan Bartlett, the Logan’s curator of exhibits and education (pictured above), was initially interested in restoring the birds, but he came to the conclusion that their current condition gave them a more mythic appearance. Bartlett, shown at left,­ says he also considered nicknaming the pair, but he ultimately decided the pigeons should remain nameless. “I like it that way,” he says. “It gives them an every-pigeon quality. Without names, they stand in for the billions of birds that are no longer in existence.” Perhaps that also explains why Bartlett finds the birds unsettling at times. “I tend to feel very guilty when I look at them,” he says. “I’ve never killed a passenger pigeon, and I don’t think my grandparents ever killed a passenger pigeon, but I still feel a certain responsibility for what happened.”


Photo courtesy of The Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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