One of the more unexpected invitations that I received was proffered by Scott Bishop, a curator at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University. Among the materials for which Scott has principal responsibility is the Louise Hauss and David Brent Miller Audubon Collection consisting of over 100 Audubon prints, most of which are from Birds of America. The 2014 anniversary provided an unusual theme that could be illustrated by the Audubon prints. To explore that possibility, Scott originally contacted the Project Passenger Pigeon web-site to find out more about the Anthony Philip Heinrich symphony, the nine movement piece that depicts the life of the species. (The symphony had been performed but once, in the 1850s in Prague, and a major goal of P3 was to have it performed during the anniversary year. More on this later.) I sent the information that was requested, along with images by contemporary artists that might comprise a compelling exhibit. As the correspondence between us increased, there was an effort to become Facebook Friends. My failure to find the right Scott Bishop to make the request, led to an e-mail and this reply from Scott: “My name is hyphenated on Facebook. There is always the moment when I have to explain that I am a woman.” Scott is Alabama raised and her parents kept up that fine southern tradition of giving female offspring Christian names that sound like surnames: one thinks of such southern luminaries as Harper, Flannery, and Carson.
These early e-mails were sent in early January right when the book was coming out. Scott read some of the reviews and took me up on my interest in coming down to give a talk. So I was scheduled for the last day in September and the first days of October. (I later learned to my great pleasure that Scott had earlier brought in the poet Tom Crawford, who is also featured on the P3 web-site, to give readings and talk to students.) She was a terrific host, contacting other faculty members who might want to get together or even take me birding. (On the rare occasions where the inviting venue is within the range of the spotted skunk, my number one jinx mammal in the US, I ask if there are any known locations in the vicinity. To date only one person has replied affirmatively: Scott actually knows someone who does see them on occasion. Unfortunately, the logistics of looking for this largely nocturnal species just did not work out . But God bless her for trying.)
Getting to Auburn is a little bit of an effort. It is about 100 miles from Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson Airport, which vies with O’Hare as the nation’s busiest. But the shuttle bus arrived on time and dropped me off at the Hotel at Auburn University, a stately establishment which is affiliated with the university’s program in Hotel and Restaurant Management. My room was on the fifth floor and the elevator opened opposite a door labeled “Presidential Suite.” I later asked a hotel employee about the room and he gave me a tour of the capacious space. Apparently, one gentleman has reserved if for something like twenty years of football weekends when he brings his family for all of the home games. (I am not a huge fan of college sports, but clearly at places like Auburn it generates a tremendous amount of good will throughout the state. I left on Friday- the following day there would be battle of large felids as the Tigers of Auburn were hosting the Tigers of LSU- and the campers and trailers had already begun occupying all the flat vacant land in town. I was told that some people actually own houses in Auburn which they use precisely 14 times a year, the night before and night of home games. )
After I settled in Scott picked me up and we joined friends of hers for a great southern style barbeque. I had visited Alabama but twice beofre (it was the destination of the family’s first vacation, when we went to visit my mother’s brother in 1960.) and so it was particularly fascinating listening to long-time residents discuss the state of their state. I wish I had the list of everyone present because it was most enjoyable. I did bond with Barry Fleming in particular, being that he is an active birder (as a day job, he is a member of the art department).
Among the people I most wanted to meet was Geoff Hill, Auburn’s ornithologist who authored a recent book on ivory-billed woodpeckers. Geoff led a group investigating the presence of this legendary species in northern Florida. He picked me up in the morning to do some birding. There were no life birds in the area but I did mention that I had not seen either Bachman’s sparrow or red-cockaded woodpeckers for a long time so we targeted those species. Geoff obtained permission for us to visit a private holding which harbors, in Geoff’s words, “an odd shortleaf pine/loblolly pine savanna that looks like a longleaf pine savanna.” The site holds the largest local populations of both the woodpecker and the Bachman’s, but Geoff thought the time of year would be an impediment to our success. It took us a little time to find the right area but finding the exact location for red-cockadeds is pretty easy: the trees are spray painted with either an x (in northern Florida) or a ring. As we walked off from the road at one point, we flushed a sparrow that I barely glimpsed. Geoff saw it better and identified it as a Bachman’s. Fortunately we had much better views of a red-cockaded.
Geoff dropped me off at a university picnic on campus. One group was folding origami passenger pigeons. But a lot was going on such that it merited an appearance by the university president. Perhaps of even greater import, the event drew none other than Aubie. It was the first time in my life that I shook hands with a Division I mascot. Next on the agenda was my presentation to a class on conservation biology for non-majors taught by Bob Boyd, a plant ecologist. A tour of the Donald Davis arboretum (part of Auburn) with Scott and Dee Smith followed. It is 13.5 acres in size and packed with gems including a fine collection of insectivorous plants.
Scott picked me up Thursday morning for a tour of the Smith Museum where I was presenting my talk later in the day. The extraordinary exhibit, entitled “The Art of Vanishing,” represented a collaboration between the art museum and Auburn’s Museum of Natural History: the Audubon plates were augmented by actual specimens of endangered and extinct species. The exhibit was described in an article as “a cautionary tale bridging art and science.” Jason Bond, biology professor and director of the natural history museum characterized the effort as “a tremendous opportunity to work with the art museum as it highlights the importance of natural history collection and showcases the intersection of art and science in such a meaningful and poignant manner.” On display were such Alabama specialties as the flat pigtoe mussel (endemic to the Tombigbee watershed but presumed extinct as it has not been found since the late 1970s ) and two endangered subspecies of the beach mouse.
Near our dinner venue was a small space that is used as a gallery to display the works of students. At least one class was given the assignment to take passages from A Feathered River Across the Sky and create images inspired by the words. It was exceedingly moving to see my words so skillfully depicted by these so very talented young artists. Following dinner was my One more highlight of a grand trip.
Anyone passionate about passenger pigeons really must make a pilgrimage to Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum. In the 1920s ROM prepared and distributed a detailed questionnaire on passenger pigeons that yielded important information from those who knew the birds from life. Under the museum’s auspices, this information was collated and augmented by a wide range of other material by Margaret Mitchell, who published her findings in the superb The Passenger Pigeon in Ontario. Perhaps of greater significance for current visitors, ROM has the world’s largest collection of passenger pigeons with about 160 skins, mounts, and skeletons. Seventy of those specimens were acquired by volunteer Paul Hahn who from 1918 to 1960 scoured the province in search of his quarry. I was therefore particularly pleased to be invited to give a talk in late September.
Project Passenger Pigeon has put me in touch with people in Toronto, a number of whom I had met but some I had not. Artists Tim Hough, whose bird renditions are nothing less than stunning, and Nicole Vermond, both of whom drove down to Chicago to see the documentary, graciously picked me up at the airport. We had lunch with another Toronto friend Richard Aaron Then Nicole and Tim took me birding. Again, mid afternoon land birding proved to be slow: the natural history highlight were the antics of a raccoon (at end of text).
My hotel was a couple of blocks from ROM, and right next to the University of Toronto. The next day was spent entirely at ROM. One unexpected pleasure came a few weeks before my trip when I received an e-mail from David Day, a world renowned author whose books on J.R. R. Tolkein have sold over a million copies. But he has also written extensively on extinct species, authoring such titles as the Doomsday Book of Animals (1981), revised as The Encyclopedia of Vanished Species (1989), Noah’s Choice (1990) and Nevermore: A Book of Hours – Meditations on Extinction (2012). He congratulated me on A Feathered River and expressed a desire to get together when I was in Toronto.
David and I met at the museum first thing and had a delightful time together. My formal presentation was part of a two person talk: the other speaker was Ben Novak who would be addressing the de-extinction work he is working on. David and I were at the museum guest entrance when in walked Ben and his parents. Later we were all summoned by Mark Peck, the bird collections manager, to see the collections. While most museums have a drawer or two containing some number of passenger pigeons, ROM had many drawers. Ben and I reveled in the treasures, and never even finished going through all the passenger pigeon drawers. I did say to Mark that he would never have more enthusiastic passenger pigeon devotees looking at the collection at the same time as he did that day. It was a ROM specimen whose DNA Ben is using in his work.
ROM had planned a terrific program with a reception and book signing before hand. There was also a musical prelude featuring a chorus replicating various avian sounds. I also met for the first time Skip Shand, a Facebook Friend whose ruminations on birding, nature more broadly, and literature (Skip taught theater for many years Glendon College of York University) led to some great on line discussions and a desire to cross paths. This trip provided the opportunity, as he was picking me up in the morning to go birding, after which he would deposit me at the airport.
Our first morning stop was Rotary Park in Ajax where we also met up with John Stirrat, a birding friend of Skips. Rotary Park is a diverse area with Lake Ontario on one side along with woods and marsh on the other. We did find some several species of shorebirds including pectoral sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, least sandpiper, and a stilt sandpiper. Cranberry Marsh in Whitby is inland and drew lots of birders and photographers. The birding highlight for me was the trumpeter swan family that came quite close. Pretending to be a photographer changes one’s perspective. Black-capped chickadees are so widespread they are rarely worthy of mention but here we encountered a totally habituated individual that would perch on human hands. (I envision a book, Chickadees in the Mist) Not only is the red squirrel arguably the most comely of our eastern squirrels, it occurs in Illinois in but one county. It is therefore not a species I see often, and although it is certainly common within its range, finding one that proved to be a good photographic model elevated the personal significance of the experience. Our last stop was at Thickson Woods where the highlight was meeting Glenn Coady, a local birder of longstanding who provided me with information on the passenger pigeon in Ontario when I was researching the book.
Usually being dropped off at the airport concludes the adventures. But there was something odd when I walked into the American terminal and things seemed to be in suspended motion. The ticket agents were all engaged in long conversations with customers. I soon learned the problem: a contract employee set fire to a suburban Chicago air traffic control center where he worked, bringing O’Hare and Midway Airports to a halt. Two-thousand flights were cancelled. The ticket agent I wound up getting was totally stymied on what to do. I wanted to do something that suggested progress. She summoned someone else who seemed better able to handle the challenge. He routed me from Toronto to LaGuardia because that was possible: camping out at LaGuardia seemed the likely prospect. (While the two of them debated my fate, I did offer to go home with one or the other and sleep in the garage or in the back yard with the poodles (that last was just a guess.)) Later as I waited for that flight, I again encountered the second ticket agent and he had a great idea: he said the few flights from New York to Chicago were so delayed I might be able to get to New York in time to catch one of them. And he was right..
Catbird at Rotary Park
My first trip to the Smithsonian, in June, was to present a lecture. My second trip, from September 21 to 23, was to present, with David Mrazek, our documentary, From Billions to None. (David’s wife is from the DC area, so his family of three took the opportunity to make a vacation out of the event staying with relatives.) Back in June, I was invited by long-time friend Melissa Weidenfeld to stay at her family’s house. It turned out she was out of town during the duration of my trip but her husband, David, an ornithologist with the American Bird Conservancy, proved to be a most accommodating host. He picked me up at Dulles and we headed out to Virginia horse country for some birding and to meet up with Mike Carpenter and Karen Anderson for dinner.
We drove through some lovely hilly landscapes and did a short hike at Sky Meadows State Park. Birding was slow, but then it was in mid-afternoon. Our most memorable bird- at least the only one I can recall- was a pied-billed grebe. We then headed towards the Red Fox Inn, a terrific restaurant in Middleburg, Virginia. It took a phone call to right a logistical confusion between the two parties but we met and all was well.
David dropped me off at the museum the next morning and that is where I spent the day. I met and had lunch with Carla Dove, who was trained by the late legendary Roxie Laybourne. These women had as a primary task identifying birds by individual feathers. When a plane has to land because the engine sucked in a bird, the gooey avian remains are sent to Carla to identify. When I met her, she was talking to an officer in the Air Force who had brought her some specimens.
One of the unexpected pleasures of speaking far and wide is reconnecting with people I may not have seen in decades. (Just a week ago after giving a talk in Oak Park, IL, a member of the audience came up to me who proved to be my fourth grade teacher whom I have not seen since 1964. ) Someone who falls into that category is Gary Graves who grew up near Little Rock and has been a lifelong birder. Currently Chair of the Vertebrate Zoology Department and Curator of Birds, he says this on the Smithsonian website: “I am unapologetically curious about natural history and the pathways by which natural history observations catalyze significant ecological and evolutionary discoveries.” We have corresponded but I knew it had been a long time since we encountered each other in person: he reminded me that the last time was 1968 when he was visiting relatives in a suburb close to where I lived.
Another treat while in DC was seeing my dear friend Kate Garchinsky, a superb artist who came all the way up from Philadelphia to attend the presentation. After the movie, she, David W. and I had dinner with Michael Braun, a research scientist in the Smithsonian’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology. One of Mike’s current projects involves the red siskin, a bird I was not familiar with before. A species inhabiting Venezuela and Guinea, it has been driven to near extinction due to the cage bird trade. But the popularity of the species is not the bird itself as much as its use for creating orange or red canaries. Mike’s efforts seek to reverse that trend by working with South American conservationists.
So there are people you know but whom you have not seen in a long time or people you know of but have never actually met. The same goes for specific birds. Not surprisingly, I relished the opportunity to examine the passenger pigeon trays. I was not looking for any bird in particular but I know the records so well I felt as if I made a major discovery when I came across two specimens I knew well. There are probably close to 2,000 passenger pigeons in the world’s collection but no known member of the species has ever been shot farther west than the one slain on September 10, 1867 in the West Humboldt Mountains of Nevada. It is an immature female and was taken during the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel– The King Survey (1867-1872).
The second specimen is significant because it was one of the last ones ever killed in the wild. The shooter took this pigeon, another immature, on July 27, 1898 two miles east of Owensboro, Kentucky. There had been false rumors published in a range of newspapers and magazines that the Smithsonian was offering rewards for passenger pigeon specimens. Presumably to receive his share, the fellow put the bird in an envelope and mailed it to the museum. The specimen as it lays in its drawer today manifests the partial decomposition to be expected of an untreated corpse going through the mails from Kentucky to Washington DC over the course of several days during mid-summer.
It was all of a 60 mile or so drive to Ann Arbor where I was to give the annual William Farrand Memorial Lecture at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History the following evening. There was no grilling or very much talking of any kind as I crossed the border and headed to my destination. I parked in the appropriate lot and walked around to the entrance while banners quivered in the breeze. Amy Harris, director of the museum, and Gene Dillenburg, head of exhibits, have been exceptionally supportive of Project Passenger Pigeon from early on. I was certainly familiar with the downloadable panels Gene’s team had made but I was anxious to see the actual exhibit that was created for the museum.
A brief digression. Michigan is one of the msot important states or provinces in the history of the passenger pigeon. Many of the big nestings during the 1870s, including the last large nesting at Petoskey in 1878, occurred within its borders. Michigan was the one and only jurisdiction to ever ban all killing of the species (unfortunately that law was passed in 1897 when there were virtually no wild birds left, but it was nice gesture.) And the first book length account of the bird, The Passenger Pigeon, was authored by William Mershon, a life-long resident of Saginaw in 1907. Besides having a sizable collection of passenger pigeon skins and mounts, it has nets and stools that were used in the hunting of the birds. Mershon bequeathed much of his materials to the museum, including mounts and the original Louis Agassiz Fuertas painting he commissioned for his book.
The museum did indeed have a wonderful exhibit. A block or so away is the building that houses the universities School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). It had evidently been a good mast year the previous fall as passenger pigeons were evident all over the place. There were pigeon tracks stenciled on the ground to guide the visitor from the musuem to the SNRE. Then on the steps leading up to the school were colorful chalk depictions of the species. But the big roost was inside largely through the works of Sara Aldertein-Gonzalez. Sara is an Associate Research Scientist who specializes on the ecology of the Great Lakes. But she also loves art. In the interdisciplinary spirit that permeates SNRE, she identified an under used space and received permission to turn it into an art gallery. Lots of places participated in Fold the Flock to create origami passenger pigeons. But Sara had her students make their own individualized paper pigeons, and this flock hovered below the ceiling. The gallery itself was used to display the marvelous creation of Ann Rosenthal and Stefi Domike entitled Moving Targets. Their work draws a parallel between the destruction of the pigeons and the forced emigration of their Jewish grandparents from the Ukraine. They augmented images and story with the drawings of other artists to form a really unforgettable exhibition. (Besides Ann Arbor, the piece was hosted by Duquesne University, Brushwood at Ryerson (near Chicago, and Cornell University.
A reception at SNRE was planned for the appearance of both me and Ann. We each gave short talks which was followed by questions. This was the second and final time this year that I met an elderly person who as a youth knew older people who had once hunted passenger pigeons. One degree of separation . . . The formal talk at the museum was well attended and drew friends like Destry Hoffard and Ralph Finch, who were instrumental in helping me find historic photos.
The Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan is a place I had visited once before. Kyle Bagnall is a naturalist who works there whom I met in April 2011 when we held a Project Passenger Pigeon organizing meeting at Michigan State University. Kyle agreed to be the Michigan coordinator and did a superb job. Over 30 organizations within the state offered displays or programming. I was invited to give a talk for the nature center’s Bioblitz in the afternoon while Kyle was scheduled to give his passenger pigeon presentation (Michigan oriented) at 11 am. I had very much wanted to see how other people presented the pigeon saga but this would be the only opportunity. I arrived at Chippewa in plenty of time and was delighted by Kyle’s talk. There were wonderful quotes from old sources I was not familiar with: but that is not really surprising, as Kyle is a first-rate researcher in addition to being a fine presenter. Among the visitors was a class from Alma College led by ornithologist Mike Bishop, who participated in the bioblitz by operating a bird banding station. He and his band of students met us for dinner prior to my talk.
As I scheduled travel for 2014, one of my great fears is that I would some how double book or forget a booking. Neither of those things ever happened, thank goodness, but the worst planning I made involved the evening talk in Midland and the following morning. Here is he e-mail I sent Kyle on September 15 when I realized what I had done: ” I do not know how this happened but I just made a horrifying discovery. I am scheduled to leave for Washington DC at 7 am on Sept 21! So that means when I am done with my talk at Chippewa in the evening of Sept 20, I need to head straight back for home. Eeek! I have never used Red Bull type products but this might be a first.”
I did buy a bottle of 5-Hour Energy in case I needed a jolt over the course of the five hour drive home. As I was leaving the nature center close to 9pm someone asked me if I wanted to take some homemade apple cider donuts (coated in spice sugar, no less). I no longer eat donuts (as is apparent by my well-sculpted physiognomy) but heck I took a couple anyway, if just to be polite. Well as I approached the Indiana border, my energy level began to sag and I gobbled a donut. Somewhat later, impressed by the first one, I consumed the remaining one. Not long after, I suddenly was wracked by chest pains, severe heart burn I was confident. The upper gut had processed the sweetened deep friend dough and let me know it was unhappy. But nothing relives drowsiness and kicks you into alertness better than extreme pain. The miles just passed by as I cruised homeward with ease. By the time I arrived, the I felt fine and could fall asleep for the few hours I had allotted.
On September 17 I commenced an unusual road trip: three venues in two different countries. The first part of the excursion was hosted most delightfully by the Essex Region Conservation District, based in Essex, Ontario. Kris Ives had been corresponding for a while regarding their passenger pigeon specimen and desire to create a traveling exhibit to mark the anniversary. She was collaborating on this latter project with my friend Sarah Rupert (a naturalist at Point Peele National Park) and the Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary. Given that some of Ontario’s best migration locations are close to or within the Essex region, the district sponsors a number of birding events including the Shorebird Songbird Festival in May at Hillman Marsh Conservation Area and the Hawk Festival in September at Holiday Beach Conservation Area (Holiday Beach has long been known as one of the premier locations in the continent.) Kris asked me if I was going to be anywhere near Essex during any of their bird programs. With enough trips planned, one is bound to be near somewhere else and so her offer fit in perfectly with two Michigan engagements.
To ensure ease in crossing the border, Kris had sent me a letter of introduction stating that I was to provide a lecture on behalf of the district. It turned out that the most arduous part of the crossing was conducted by police on the US side who wanted to see the contents of my trunk and asked me a bunch of questions. They did not seem all that impressed by letter. Having satisfied those folks, the Canadian guard was great. He was something of a naturalist with a strong interest in the Carolinian forests of southern Ontario. (These are deciduous forests that contain sassafras, Kentucky coffee tree, and a few other species at the northern limit of their range.) Fortuantely, there was no large line behind us because he kept up a very nice conversation. Sarah later told me that when the guards find someone particularly patient or whom they find interesting, they will often engage them in palaver.
I began to lose confidence in my Map Quest directions to McKinnon’s Bed and Breakfast, located in Amhrest burg so I stopped at a real estate office, figuring they ought to know the local area. It turns out the lady not only was familiar with local geography but passenger pigeons too, having written a paper on them when she was in school. (I gave her a copy of the book.) The bed and breakfast is located on the Lake Erie side of a peninsula; the other side of the road is a large marsh. The McKinnon’s were very accommodating and their home is lovely. I thought of Sarah Palin as I stared out through their living room window and could see the United States.
Kris came a little later and turned out to be the most wonderful of hosts for the day and a half she had me in her care. She kept track of our schedule as we visited a number of fascinating areas. We packed a lot into that first afternoon. First off we stopped at the museum on the grounds of the John R. Park Homestead Conservation Area, Harrow, Ontario. This where Kris works and we also lingered with the passenger pigeon that the district is borrowing from a local private collector. Since it wasn’t far, how could we not see the waters of Pigeon Bay. Then we met Claire Sanders, who is Coordinator of the Detroit River Canadian Cleanup, who joined us. We ran into someone who had just seen a huge swarm of monarchs in a field but our perusal of the site failed to yield anywhere near the number reported.
The final destination of the day was Point Pelee National Park to see my friend Sarah Rupert, who is a naturalist there. Point Pelee juts into Lake Erie and is the southernmost point in mainland Canada. It is renowned as a migrant trap. I was there once before, in 1970, and was awed by the swarms of birds and birders. I recall in particular a cerulean warbler foraging on the ground, a joy to the birders but no doubt very stressful to the bird who prefers when food is available high in the forest canopy. The museum has a wonderful assemblace of displays, but the two that resonated with me most was a- big surprise- handsome male passenger pigeon mount and a quilt depicting the past, present, and future of Point Pelee through the eyes of the Pottawatomie, Odawa, and Ojibwa peoples who have lived here over the years.
The next morning was mostly about birds. We hit a bird banding station near Holiday Beach. Migration for small birds was slow but both a gray-cheeked thrush and a ruby-throated hummingbird intersected the nets and were banded.
It did turn out to be a very good day for raptor movements. The banders caught a sharp-shinned. Later, from the viewing platform at Holiday Beach, kettles of broadwings circled high over head. Even at lunch, at Mettawas Station where we were joined by Kris’s colleagues Richard Wyma (General Manager) and Danielle Stuebing (Director, Community Outreach Services), the hawks kept flying. Fearful of being labeled ADHD, I still could not help from shouting out during our conversation that a merlin was flying over.
After lunch we stopped at the Jack Miner Migratory Bird Refuge in Kingsville where we were met by Craig Capacchione, Outreach Coordinator/Curator. Jack Miner was an early conservationist who began banding migratory waterfowl in 1909. His data helped lead to the landmark Migratory Bird Treaty that protected birds moving between Canada and the US.
Dinner and my talk was at a lovely vineyard, named Cooper’s Hawk (for both the raptor and the accounting firm where the owner use to work). Tom O’Brien, the owner, gave me a little tour and offered me some of their product, which is in fact very highly regarded by aficionados. At that moment I really wish I was a drinker, but an hour before my talk did not seem to be a propitious time to start. These are the words that define their operation: “Our vision is to grow quality wine in an environmentally supportive surrounding. Preservation of our natural habitat through sustainable practices is our priority. Making wine for you to celebrate with family and friends is our goal.”
It seems that some of the most interesting stories and people come my way during book signings. Toward the end of the line was a young woman named Kate Stasiak who turned out to be a veterinarian who specializes in wildlife. Her most recent assignment was performing necropsies on caribou in the Northwest Territories. She held in her hand a paperback copy of the book that she bought- it was the last copy- in The Yellowknife Book Cellar, which bills itself as “Canada’s most northern independent bookstore.” I am still amazed that the book wound up in such an unexpected place. The evening and my Ontario adventures ended with Kris, Sarah, Kate, Kate’s sister Iga, and I going out for snacks. But not too late for I had to cross the border in the morning and needed to be alert for my expected grilling by the US border guards.
There was an almost two week period in early September that all of my talks were local. The Burpee Museum of Natural History, in Rockford, Illinois, holds over 100,000 specimens, almost a third of which are of a paleontological nature. This recent emphasis on fossils has enabled the museum to establish a national reputation in the field. The night I was to give my talk I met a paleontologist from University of California-Berkeley who was there doing research. Two of their outstanding specimens are Homer, a young triceratops, and Jane, “the world’s most complete and best preserved juvenile T. rex” (web-site). In the past, though, their leadership has been very bird oriented and the collection reflects that. They have a young passenger pigeon skin, of which there are relatively few. I regret not having taken more photos of my visit but Burpee is a fine museum which Chicago-area folks ought to make a destination. (It is also part of a complex that includes the Rockford Discovery Center Museum, ranked among the best children’s museums in the country.)
Making a film is challenging and expensive. Getting it aired is also challenging and expensive. But to maximize the benefits of the first part, people have to see it. The producers of Green Fire suggested to David Mrazek that a good way to proceed with From Billions to None was to contact Selena Lauterer of Artemis Independent. She has a well deserved reputation in getting PBS programmers to schedule independent films. Selena liked the film very much and has been a joy to work with; our movie has aired on stations from Boston to Los Angeles (an there maybe a national airing on Earth Day). Getting the film shown on Chicago’s WTTW (Channel 11) was something David and I especially wanted. We were thrilled that the movie was aired twice, plus twice on Chicago’s other public television station WYCC. The first Channel 11 presentation was on September 11, and as a build-up the producers of Chicago Tonight invited David, me, and Heinrich (my passenger pigeon) to appear on their show an hour or two before. Eddy Arruza interviewed us and it was a fun time. But the fun that night continued. Jeff Skrentny invited us to be the featured guests at their monthly Birds and Beer Night that was held at a Lincoln Park Pub. It was a rare pleasure watching the movie with old (and new) birding friends.
The McHenry County Conservation District invited me twice over the year. The first time was last spring when I gave a talk at their volunteer appreciation lunch. And the second time was on Spetember 12 at their Lost Valley Visitor Center at Glacial Park, one of their larger preserves. This was my initial visit to the center. The talk went well . This segment doesn’t end though because my good friend Stacy Iwanicki, Natural Resource Coordinator for the Volo Bog Natural Area, has been a an avid supporter of Project Passenger Pigeon since she first heard about. One of the monthly activities that Stacy offers is Of Bogs and Books, where each session focuses on a different book, which the group discusses. She asked me if I would be interested in attending. As incentive, she and her spouse Mike offered to put me up for the night at their home. Since the distances were so close, it was easy to agree.
Volo Bog is the only open water tamarack bog in the state of Illinois. The watery “eye” is surrounded by rings of vegetation, including cattail marsh, shrubs like poison sumac, tamaracks, and the floating mat that gives way to open water. There was time between my arrival and commencement of activities, so one of Stacie’s volunteers took for a short walk. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot but we did see a couple of migrant warblers (this time we did identify them), a very accommodating family of young eastern wood-pewees, a patient swamp sparrow, and a lovely eastern garter snake. I am still getting used to my camera and derive great pleasure when I capture pleasing images of wild critters.
Slightly out of sequence, I want to end this blog with my trip to Beloit College on September 24. (September 23, I had just returned from DC). The morning started early when Cindy (who graciously agreed to come along) and I headed to Elgin High School to participate in the National Biodiversity Teach-In, conceived, organized, and implemented by the remarkable science teacher Deb Perryman, with major assistance from her colleagues and students. The teach-in offered 20 webinars by an assortment of speakers. The effort drew over 8,000 viewers over the 5 days. In addition to the US, there were participants from Canada, Mexico, India, Germany, and England.
Beloit embraced Project Passenger Pigeon like no other college. They offered numerous activities and passenger pigeon were covered in a range of classes from dance to mathematics. That this happened was the convergence of several things. Gene Dillenburg of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural Hisotry and his team created wonderful downloadable panels that have been adopted widely by museums across the US and Canada. He posted news of their availability on a list serve for museum folks. This caught the eye of Dan Bartlett, curator of exhibits at Beloit’s Logan Museum of Anthropology, and he shared it with Christina Clancy, professor of English. This all happened at a time when the college had recently received a major grant to be used to facilitate inter-disciplinary programs. The perfect storm! Christina contacted me, and lots of things happened. She arranged for me to give a talk at the Urban Ecology Center in March and she, Dan, and others from the college met me for dinner in late July at a place between my home and Beloit. My crazy travel schedule prevented me from attending all the activities they offered but I did give a talk on September 24. Cindy generously came along to help with the two hour drive home, much of it on hideous Route 90 (subject to endless construction). And early the next morning, I was flying off to Toronto.
Way back in January 2012, at the height of my evangelizing period, I met at the Harvard Museum of Natural History with a group representing a range of New England organizations. One of those present was Rob Kluin of Plimoth Plantation. We had exchanged e-mails over the years. He was particularly generous in providing contact info that led to my being on the nationally aired PBS show Living on Earth and a great show from Cape Cod called The Point (hosted by Mindy Todd, whose questions were particularly thoughtful). Rob was also directly responsible for the Boston Globe doing a piece on me and the anniversary . Knowing I had spoken in the Boston area in the spring, he came up with the splendid idea of having me and the documentary be featured in Plimoth’s Dinner and a Movie series. He then reached out to John Galluzo of the South Shore Science Center in Norwell and John agreed to have me give a talk there.
Rob arranged for me to stay at the Vose’s in Duxbury, a historic city filled with beautiful old homes. (One early resident was the nation’s premier ship builder; called King Caesar, he had the largest private fleet of ships in the US.) The Vose family is itself very interesting. Joseph Vose opened its first art gallery in 1841 and six subsequent generations have maintained the business, making it the oldest family owned art gallery in the country.
When I was in Knoxville a/most two weeks before, I was baking in temperatures in the high nineties. I found partial solace knowing that I would be in coastal New England soon where it would certainly be cooler. Shows what I know: my stay in Duxbury coincided with the hottest spell of the entire year. (The heat was broken when a strong front came through the night of my Norwell talk: ferocious winds and rains moved in bringing cooler temperatures but likely discouraging some who would have otherwise attended the presentation). On the morning after I arrived (Friday), I walked around the Vose’s coastal neighborhood looking for at least one passerine migrant. Heck, it was September 5 and yet all I saw were resident titmice. I finally spotted a warbler high atop a spruce: my one migrant but alas I did not see it long enough to identify.
Rob picked me up just before lunch and gave me a tour of Plimoth Plantation. The museum was opened in 1947 and has expanded to include a modern visitor center, an English Village circa 1627, a 17th Century Wampanoag Homesite along the banks of the Eel River, and anchored nearby, the Mayflower II, a replica of the original. The staff are all in costume and have specific characters whose viewpoints they express. All of the Homesite personnel are either Wampanoag or of other Native Nations.
Rob had created an unusual evening program. Introductions were made by Ray Brown (host of Ray’s Talkin’ Birds, a first-rate radio program devoted to birds and birding). The movie screening would follow, and then Wayne Peterson would moderate a panel discussion with ornithologist John Kricher, food-ways expert Kathleen Wall, and Wampanoag member and expert Robert Charlebois. An interesting evening ensued, and afterwards several of us of retreated to a bar to chat some more. As a non-drinker who is rarely up past 9 pm, I was definitely out of my habitat but the conversation was compelling. Suffice it to say Wayne and Rob are top-notch raconteurs.
There was strong incentive to get up reasonably early the next morning as Glenn d’Entremont, the immediate past president of the South Shore Bird Club and a member of the Brookline Bird Club, had agreed to take me birding when John Galluzo had asked him. I had opted for coastal areas (Lake Michigan is wonderful but it is not the Atlantic Ocean). It was fun watching glossy ibis foraging in a marsh but the highlight was one location where we saw 13 species of sandpipers including a white-rumped.
Two states officially recognized this year as the centenary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction. Illinois’ statement specifically named September as the month. But the Massachusetts Senate sponsored a resolution commending Project Passenger Pigeon on its observation of the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. This was due to Rob’s connections and a staffer from the Senate President’s Office stopped by Plimoth to deliver the certificate. Some of the staff were present at the evening event.
For five years I had been working to help publicize the centenary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction. Events kicked off in January with the release of my book, but the key date was September 1, the day Martha died a century ago, and the key place was the Cincinnati Zoo, where she died. Way back in April 2010, I reached out to the zoo at a most memorable meeting (http://www.birdzilla.com/blog/2010/04/17/a-trip-to-the-holy-land-part-ii-piketon-and-cincinnati/) and Dan Marsh, the education director, has been a key player in all the efforts since. Later I met Randy Rogers of the Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS) who was also committed to the goals of Project Passenger Pigeon. The zoo and OOS collaborated in coming up with a rich array of activities to make the anniversary memorable. (Randy, I need to mention, was responsible for the creation of a beautiful new memorial to the passenger pigeon based on the art work of Kristina Knowski: it stands on the grounds of historical Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus.)
I had met a number of people over the past few years who had indicated that being in Cincinnati on September 1 was something they had wanted to do. I reached out to several friends and their presence made the experience even more rewarding for Cindy and me. Garrie Landry came from Franklin, Louisiana; Justin Peters took a train from Toronto to Essex County where he met Sarah Rupert and the two drove down; and Bret Angelos and Cheryl Cabiness from the Chicago area came as well. (Bret wrote the play Savage Passengers, based on what might be the only few incidents in the historical record where someone sought to protest the slaughter of the pigeons.) Joining us for the events, and putting us up for one night, was Marianne Buentner, a college friend of Cindy’s who lives in Cincinnati.
On Friday afternoon, August 29, I was in the lobby with Garrie as we waited a visit from Sherri Woodley, a novelist from Washington who was traveling through. Sherri’s last book, A Quick Fall of Light, is a science-fiction novel that features passenger pigeons as a major theme. We had been in touch for a number of years now but this was our first chance to meet. The our of us (including her husband) were having a nice chat when suddenly the fire alarm in the building went off. Everyone had to evacuate but for me the most awful aspect was that Cindy was up in our room. Do you ignore orders and race to retrieve your spouse or do you assume she is ok and will find her way down? Some scary time elapsed before she appeared. We eventually we were told we could reenter the building but only after I asked staffers did one or two reveal that the alarm was triggered as a result of someone preparing pop corn.
Festivities began that evening with “Martinis with Martha,” a reception held at the zoo and hosted by Dan. Music was provided by Bill Thompson and his band, The Rain Crows. Bill is famous in birding circles for being editor and publisher of Bird Watchers Digest, and this is the first time I ever met him. Saturday’s program consisted of four talks: by me; wildlife artist John Ruthven whose mural of passenger pigeons was one of the highlights of the anniversary effort; Jim Cormac, an author and biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife who talked about the plight of cerulean warblers; and Brian Jorg, Director of Horticulture at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Sunday of Labor Day weekend is a big deal in Cincinnati with fireworks and other civic events so that day was devoted to a birding field trip that centered on an oxbow in the Ohio River that is being restored by a local land conservancy. The birds were slow with the highlight being a peregrine falcon. But I did get a chance to talk with a wonderful lady whom I had first met earlier in the year at the Black Swamp birding festival: Pat Williamson, Executive Director of the Ohio Humanities Council (she is someone who truly gets the importance of linking the humanities with science and conservation).
And then there was Monday September 1, THE date. The zoo had refurbished the passenger pigeon memorial that fills a preserved building that once housed the aviary. A nice crowd assembled as a television crew focused on zoo director Thane Maynard. A family from Japan was visiting and I gave them a copy of the book: a copy generously donated by another passenger pigeon friend I had not met before, Chris Grecco from Pennsylvania. (I sent him a copy later to compensate for his favor).
The anniversary did get me thinking of Martha and how her beginning and end are cloaked in mystery. David Whittaker, of Milwaukee, started his passenger pigeon flock in 1888 with one pair (one half of another pair died while the second bird escaped). He claims that while on a trip ut of town in early 1896 his entire flock of 18 birds was stolen and then sold to an unaware Charles Otis Whitman. Whittaker later received some of the birds back. If Martha was born before 1896, she started life in Milwaukee; otherwise she was born in Chicago. But, alas, despite people continuing to give Martha an age, there is absolutely no information on that subject: neither Whittaker nor Whitman kept track of births. In 1902, she was living in Chicago for that is when she was sent to the Cincinnati Zoo. Most of the literature says she was found dead by her keeper around 1 pm of that fateful September day. But there is an article by Joseph Quinn that says Martha was stabbed by her keeper because he wanted her death to be under his watch. This would be easily dismissed except for Dr. Shufeldt’s necropsy which found a tiny slit on the side of its abdomen from which blood was dripping: upon enlarging this opening he found “the right lobe of the liver and the intestine almost entirely broken up as though it was done with some instrument.” A fire at the zoo in the 1930s destroyed any records that might have revealed more.
“I’ve written a few articles for the Tennessee Conservationist magazine, one on the Ivory-bill and another recently on the passenger pigeon and links to Tennessee. I know why you are interested in the [passenger pigeon]. It kind of gets under your skin after a while.” Paul James to Blogger
I met Paul James in October 2011 through Garrie Landry, whose passenger pigeon web-site became the cyber gathering place of passenger pigeon devotees. Paul is the director of the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. He has become a close friend who provided a lot of support to me personally (including sharing his collection of passenger pigeon material that he had assembled over the years) and in the effort to publicize the anniversary in Tennessee and beyond.
When you work with a range of people on a project that lasts years, there will be life changes and morale shifts over the course of time. Paul sent me this w-mail in March 22, 2013: ” I’m not sure if you feel the same way but sometimes, on my glass-half-empty days I guess- I find it hard going exciting the masses. What is it with people who are not excited about dead birds?!” I could definitely relate to this, and it arrived just after I learned some disheartening news. But I shared with Paul something a junior high student had just sent that underlined the merit of our efforts and made it all seem worthwhile:
” Dear Project Passenger Pigeon, I am writing this letter to inform you of my recent research project involving the extinct Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius. After weeks of research, I have found that your organization has worked tirelessly to help spread the story of this animal and I appreciate that! I was especially interested that you are trying to help other animals with the Passenger Pigeon story and getting more people involved. I’m including a brochure that I created in order to promote the work that you are doing. Please consider using this brochure to tell about the work you do (feel free to copy it) to help prevent other animals from having the same fate at the pigeon did.”
The first time Paul and I met had was on October 25, 2013 when he drove up to Cincinnati where filming for the documentary was going on. Sometime after that he invited me to speak at Ijams hummingbird festival that was to be held August 25. He had also made arrangements with Kent Cave of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to have me speak at the their Sugarlands Visitor Center. GSMNP is the most heavily visited park in the entire national park system and Sugarlands draws more guests than any visitor center in the system. It is also the case that Pigeon Forge, gateway to the Smokies, is the largest city in the country named for the passenger pigeon. (Paul offered to try and recruit Dolly Parton to the Project Passenger Pigeon cause.)
I spent two days in the Knoxville area. Ijams is on the Tennessee River, a short ways downstream of the headwaters. It comprises 300 acres which is part of an extensive 1,000 acre area known as South Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. Inside the visitor center is a superb display on extinct animals that includes two mounted ivory-billed woodpecker. The Hummingbird Festival takes advantage of the large numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds that move through Tennessee on their way to wintering range in Mexico and Central America. There were numerous venders and exhibits which all helped to drew a good crowd.
The GSMNP is one of most biologically rich parks in the country. Over 1,600 species of plants live here as well as over 30 species of amphibians: there may not be any place on earth with a greater diversity of salamanders. I had last been to the park twenty years ago to see the amazing displays of spring wildflowers so it was a real treat to see the area again. Paul and I did a little exploring as we made our way to Sugarlands. We met Kent and I was so pleased they used the panels from the Project Passenger Pigeon web-site. And the display was augmented by a mounted pigeon.
I went to end this by mentioning two other people I met on this trip. Stephen Lyn Bales is a senior naturalist at Ijams. He has also authored two books including Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 (U. of Tennessee Press, 2010). Lyn wrote the book with Jim Tanner’s widow Nancy (who has since passed). A lot has been said about ivory-bills but this beautifully written biography is of special significance because it focuses on the only person who has ever studied the species in life. And quite likely history will record that he was the only person who could ever make that claim. The other person I met in person I had only known as a Facebook Friend. Rachael first attracted my attention by her posts on H.P. Lovecraft and Primo Levi. I mean there are not many young people interested in both of these men, particularly Levi. Then it turns out that she is also a friend of Lyn’s so he arranged for Rachael and me to have a most delightful dinner. Lyn acknowledges both Rachael and her mom Karen, as “my two loving at home bibliophiles who patiently tip-toed around the house, watching me put that “woodpecker book” together.”
I was invited to speak on August 15 at Godfrey, Illinois, which is a bit south of St. Louis. This prompted me to reach out to other potential venues in southern Illinois, a region I am particularly fond of. Most helpful in my quest was Tom Connelley, who along with Curt Carter have been celebrating nature through their gorgeous music for quite a while now. Cindy first introduced me to their work, and I have been in correspondence with Tom over a the of years but we have never met. Tom suggested a number of venues that might be interested in hosting my talk and arrangements were made with two of them.
At the end of the day, the Godfrey talk was cancelled so I headed directly to the St. Louis Zoo where education director Louise Bradshaw arranged for me to make two presentations. Both the zoo and Forest Park, where it is located, are special to me. The park is across Skinker Boulevard from Washington University, where I went to law and graduate school. In the spring, the park is a great place for migrants; in the winter, friends and I joined the masses sledding down the hill in front of the art museum. And the zoo was inspiring throughout the year.
August in St. Louis can often be both hot and humid: sometimes the humidity can be so great I use to muse whether it was better to have lungs or gills. And so it was hot on the 18th, but Louise hooked me up with one of her staffers for a short tour. A stop at the bird house revealed a couple of rare species that I have been fortunate to see in the wild. One was the horned guan, which very few zoos have, and the other Bali starling, a species much more widely displayed. (In 1992 when I was in Bali, my group made a special trip to see the one remaining wild flock of this stunning bird. This required a boat ride to a remote peninsula where the birds could be seen in late afternoon when they returned to roost. The boat arrived at the dock and we exited for our short hike to the roosting site. As according to plan, the birds appeared and all was good. But by the time we returned to the pier and boat, the tide had receded such that the boat could only be reached by a quarter mile wade over coral. We all held our optical equipment as we tentatively made our way over the hazardous footing and then had to confront the challenge of entering a boat from the water.)
The talk went well. I am always excited to meet people for whom the passenger pigeon story really stuck with them, often since childhood and sometimes affecting even their career choices. One such person is Angie Jungbluth who read about the bird as a youngster. She and her husband Aaron volunteer with the Missouri Department of Conservation. They were among the principal organizers of an art exhibit and programming that was offered at two venues in the St. Louis area during September.
Tom Connelley’s day job is as Technical Director of the Southern Illinois University Student Center in Carbondale. He had sent my name to John Wallace, who serves on the board of directors for the local Shawnee Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society. Shawnee reached out to the SIU Center for Sustainability they co-sponsored my talk. Students arrived on campus the day before, I was interviewed by the local radio station, and the Carbondale newspaper ran an excellent story so all was in order for a good audience. John not only coordinated my visit (including the media attention), but he and his wife Karen agreed to put me up for the night.
The distance from St. Louis to Carbondale only takes a couple of hours to cover so I meandered a bit, stopping at Washington County State Conservation Area. Land birding during the third week of August is usually pretty slow. But the conservation area features both Washington County Lake and Posen Woods Nature Preserve. The preserve is 40 acres of “southern flatwoods, dry-mesic upland forest, and intermittent stream communities” (Illinois Nature Preserves Pages). It is a lovely area deserving of a visit during a time more propitious for birding.
John manages Cedar Lake, a property owned by the city of Carbondale, and his home overlooks the 1,800 acre water body. He offered me a canoe or kayak if I wanted to explore the lake, but as an organism principally oriented towards the terrestrial I opted for prolonged observation of the hummingbird feeders he had in front of his house. Then that evening we headed to the student center of the university. This was the first talk I have given where the presentation began with a musical introduction: none other than Tom Connelley, and Curt Carter. It was real honor meeting them, something I had looked forward to for quite a while.
After the show we went back to John and Karen’s house where we met a gathering of folks they had invited to join us. I was able to chat with Tom and Curt. And it turns out that John is a most fascinating guy himself. He presents living history programs as John Muir- who died on Christmas Eve 1914, just a few months after Martha- and has a background in environmental education and activism. I met others who also identified themselves as environmental activists, people who spent a lot of time and effort back in the day to change logging policies that threatened the Shawnee National Forest. Some of my companions had chained themselves to trees to make their point. There were some lamentations that many of today’s the younger folks lack the fire they brought to the task: maybe it was time for the seniors to step into old roles.