Our newest family member.

One of the joys of my passenger pigeon activities has been meeting people all over the country who share my interest in this long extinct bird. (Readers of this blog have met a number of them.) Garrie Landry is such a person, the authority on passenger pigeon artifacts with a superb network of people who actually own specimens. A survey conducted around 1960 determined that were about 1500 dead passenger pigeons in the nuseum of the world, more than that of any other extinct bird. Garrie thinks it is possible that as many as 500 more have come to light since Hahn’s search fifty years ago. For example, not long ago, Garrie received an e-mail from a citizen of the Netherlands saying he had just acquired one.

About two months ago now, Garrie informed me that two adult male ppigeons shot in November 1874 in Papillion Nebraska were being offered for sale on E-bay. He thought that based on the price that a bird had fetched the previous year and the state of the economy, the two ought not to break the thrity-five hundred mark. My goal was not so much to own one in fee, as to have it for 2014 when I expect to be giving numerous talks. Gary and I pooled our resources and he handled the actual placing of the bid. The bidding closed late on a Friday night, past my bed time. But there was the phone call, about an hour after I turned it and it was Gary informing me that we were outbid by two thousand dollars! A disappointment but at least we had not lost by a couple of hundred bucks.

Meanwhile, Gary had been in conversation with a couple in New Hampshire who had a an adult male they were looking to sell. The bird had some damage on the neck and it lacked provenance, which is common for ppigeon specimens. All they knew was that the previous owner had him for over fifty years, while it was in their possession for eight. It was mounted by Lincoln Daniels, a taxidermist in Portland, ME in the 1870s or 80s.

Eventually, Gary was able to purchase the bird, with the idea that he would lend it to me for 2014. But when he received it, he though the specimen was a little wobbly on the mount and the mount was unsecured to the glass container. So rather than lend it to me he said he would sell it for the same amount he had paid, which was but a fraction of what the NE birds had brought. The opportunity to obtain a ppigeon for less money and hassle would never arise, and, since Cindy and I were getting tired of our imaginary children anyway, we bought ourselves a passenger pigeon.

Garrie gave careful instructions to the NH folks on how to wrap and send the bird. It was packed inside an insulated Styrofoam ice chest which was inside a big box. When he worked his way through the various containers, Garrie discovered that the head had become largely detached from the body, being connected by very little. He fixed it up and wrapped it in the most meticulous way, creating what looked like a mummy (as featured in an earlier blog post). As befitting a passenger pigeon, its scientific name means “wandering migrant”, this individual had been traveling a lot and was about to embark on the final leg of its journey.

Heinrich under glass- his original bell jar case. (Photo by Garrie Landry)

Meanwhile, my friends at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago agreed to look at the bird and give me guidance on the appropriate cases for it. Cindy and I headed to our post office to retrieve the huge box and we placed it in, where else, in the passenger seat, where we secured it with the seat belt. I was afraid to open it, and then have to repack it for our trip into Chicago so for two days I was able to admire the big card board box. Cindy raised the possibility that there was nothing in the box. In that case I would tape a picture to the box and take it along on lectures: if someone asked why I did not display the bird, I would say, “Have we become so cynical as a people that trust is dead?” Etc.

There is a reason they call it the passenger seat (aka Ectopistes seat).

The day came when we headed off to Notebaert with our box. David Mrazek met us there with his movie camera to film the opening. Steve Sullivan of Notrebaert handed my a pocket knife to cut the tape but beyond that initial incision I left the unpacking to him. The big box was stuffed with “peanuts,” wherein the glass container and the cooler were placed. Inside of the cooler were more peanuts and our bird. We have decided, by the way, to call him Heinrich, after the American composer whose master work is a nine movement symphony depicting the life of the passenger pigeon.

Steve and Alvaro evaluate Heinrich.

Steve and his colleague Alvaro Ramos examined the bird closely, and we discussed how to proceed. Steve thought the bird should be frozen to eliminate any chance of insects and Alvaro suggested the appropriate containers for him: the bird would be placed in plexiglass and that in turn would go inside a snug carrying case. For a modest fee, they agreed to arrange everything. And boy they did a great job!

There have been moments in my life that caused me to shake my head in amazement: all things considered, I would never have dreamt that the event would actually happen. Two earlier examples of this would be watching gorillas in Rwanda or birding in Central Sulawesi. These are things and places I read about as a child but, again, could not have imagined ever visiting or doing. Owning a passenger pigeon- the stuff beyond dreams.

If only passenger pigeons were this well protected in the nineteenth century.

30 Comments to “Me and My Passenger Pigeon”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Hello,

    I would like to share a picture of the passenger pigeon that we have. Not only is there a passenger pigeon, there are also 7 other birds, plus a fish. It was done for my husbands great grandfather, in 1870. The taxidermist was a gentleman by the name of Mr. Swallow.

    Thank you,
    Elizabeth

  2. Joel says:

    Elizabeth,

    I would love to see the picture of your passenger pigeon. Feel free to send it to me at joelgreenberg@earthlink.net

    Joel

  3. Joel says:

    Ryan,

    I need to check the blog more often. Thanks so much for including me in the meeting.

    Joel

  4. GLENN PURDY says:

    MY GREAT GRANDFATHER IS Lincoln Daniels. HE WAS A FISHING GUIDE AND TAXIDERMIST. GLAD TO SEE SOME OF HIS WORK HAS SURVIVED.

  5. Joel says:

    Mr. Purdy,

    This is just awesome news! I have long despaired finding out more about my bird or Mr Daniels. I would love to talk with you. Please either call me at 630-725-9416 or e-mail me at joelgreenberg@earthlink.net

    Thank you so much for getting in touch with me.

    Joel

  6. Joe Bontems says:

    Hello Mr. Greenberg;
    I have recently learned of Project Passenger Pigeon, and am trying to muster interest on the part of organisations here in Quebec, to contribute to the commemoration of the extinction of this species next year. I have found that many place names here relate to the passenger pigeon (“tourte” in Quebec French), and have communicated these findings to Project Passenger Pigeon.
    If ever you need assistance in translating documents in French, related to your book project, I would be willing to help. As you may know, historic records relating to passenger pigeons date back to at least the 1700’s here in Quebec.
    Best wishes in your book project,
    Joe Bontems, Huntingdon QUEBEC CANADA
    tel: (514) 900 – 7542

  7. Marc Beauchamp says:

    I would hope that maybe some like minded people would want to get some DNA material viable and by Jurassic park methods, Have these birds brought back, as we owe it to the world to do so, we owe it to God for the horrific, evil slaughter we did to their kind. Thank you!

  8. Joel says:

    Check out the Long Now Foundation and their Revive and Restore Project which supports teams of scientists working to re-create various extinct species. Ben Novak is heading the passenger pigeon effort. More info on Ben’s work can be found on his Facebook Page,The Big Comeback

  9. Gary Romig says:

    I have a question about The bill color of Ppigeons. Most of the written accounts that I have read state that the bill is black. Many of the photos of preserved specimens that I have seen show a yellowish bill with a dark tip. I know that bill color can vary by age and sex of the bird but I was just wondering if there is any definitive account of the bill color of the Passenger Pigeon.

  10. Joel says:

    Thank you for your question. I have not really thought about it before. Schorger (1955), who tends to be definitive on such things, says the bill is black. I will keep this in mind as I look at specimens.

  11. C T Bailey says:

    Dear Sir:
    I recently aquired a specimen that I believe is an authentic passenger pigeon. I would like to have some one verify the specimen, enjoy it for awhile, and then sell it at an honest price.
    Do you have any contacts in northern Wy or southern Mt who might help me with this?
    When I sell the specimen, I want to be as upfront and honest as possible.
    Thanks, CTB

    /

  12. Joel says:

    Mr. Bailey, please send me a photo of the bird at joelrgreenberg@gmail.com.

  13. Joe Eaton says:

    Just finished “Feathered River.” Found your review of passenger pigeon literary references interesting. As I recall, the bird also figured in Jack Womack’s science fiction novel “Terraplane”(1988), involving an alternate history in which the blues artist Robert Johnson did not die mysteriously in Mississippi but survived to play Carnegie Hall. Don’t recall exact context for the pigeons, but I do remember them as a plot element.

  14. Stacey says:

    Mr. Greenberg,

    I am looking forward to meeting you and hearing your presentation this Wednesday at Yale. My research for my master’s thesis brought me a great deal of knowledge, along with a good deal of sadness, over the myriad ways people destroyed birdlife in their attempts to help this nation “grow.”
    All this “growth,” amounted to a tremendous loss in the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and other birds. It is clear, we need to be reminded about this. I, for one, have a tough time thinking about this bird without tears. The loss of the Passenger Pigeon is this nation’s sad story. Thank you for your efforts.
    Stacey

  15. Jerry Davis says:

    I found two mounted passenger pigeons many years ago at the the Waterville Central School, (N.Y.) and gave one to the Rogers Conservation Center, Sherburne, N.Y. and left the other at the school when I left. Perhaps they are still there.

    Enjoyed your book even though it is a depressing story.

    Jerry Davis

  16. Joel says:

    Thank you for the info on the pigeons and the kind words about the book. I will look into whether the pigeons are still at those sites. They show up in all kinds of places: saddest are when they disappear from places they used to be.

  17. Marina Vedovi says:

    Dear Joel Greenberg,

    How fortunate am I to have a library close by with fascinating books on birds: I enjoy and am saddened by your A Feathered River,,,.
    The blog piece on your acquiring Heinrich reminds me of Bernd Heinrich’s The Snoring Bird in that his father made a living preparing animals for collection while keeping up his personal pursuits in natural history. Thanks for writing such a book as you have and introducing me to The Columbiad, or Migration of American Wild Passenger Pigeons.
    I hope you will some day visit northern California where I live in the less well known wine country. When I have a plan I will contact you again.
    Marina

  18. Josh P says:

    Hi there,

    I’m looking to acquire a passenger pigeon for my collection. I’m an avid collector and I already own 1 specimen as well as several Heath Hens. I would be open to a cash or cash & trade offer for a good specimen. Please let me know if you can point me in the direction of an owner looking to sell for a premium price.

    Many thanks,

    Josh
    305.502.7292

  19. Josh P. says:

    Hi Joel,

    I believe I posted about this before, but I don’t see my post so maybe it did not make it through. I am the proud owner a passenger pigeon specimen that I acquired from a Connecticut estate auction and I desperately looking for another specimen to purchase. I was hoping you might know someone interested in selling a specimen for a realistic 5-figure price as I have seen occasional comments in this forum regarding people that are willing to sell.

    If you know of any specimens that could be privately acquired, please let me know! I can be reached at josh@linkit.com or 305.502.7292 should you wish to discuss.

    All the best,

    Josh

  20. Holland Shaw says:

    Hi Joel,
    I met and have been talking with Ben Novak, about our mutual favorite subject since 2013 and we are now trying to get me involved with the Revive and Restore project. I wrote and published an article in Birding Magazine in June 1995. The subject was my proposal to read the genome of the PP and alter an extant species to resurrect The Wild Pigeon. I could email you a pdf of the article if you would care to read it. I am sure you would find it very interesting.
    Please feel free to call my cell 508-523-2112 or email me back. By the way I just finished your book. Greatest book written by all standards since Arlie Schroger. Thanks for the good work.
    Holland Shaw

  21. Fritz Dietzgen says:

    I am currently reading a feathered river across the sky. I was very happy to find on youtube, a Yale Symphony performing Anthony Phillip Heinrich’s Columbiad. It seems to have been performed this last November, and there are not many viewings (under 300) So maybe your readers do not know about this link yet. It is not very hard to find. I wish there was a sound recording of a flock of pigeons. I guess imagination will have to suffice.

  22. Joel says:

    Thanks Frits. The Yale Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Heinrich’s passenger pigeon masterpiece was the second time the piece was ever performed (and the first since the 1850s). Two weeks later the U of Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra also performed the piece. I think that too is available on You Tube.

  23. Joel says:

    Thanks Holland. I received your e-mail comments and replied. It will be interesting to watch the de-extinction efforts as they proceed.

  24. John says:

    finished Feathered River, thanks for the precise and informative read. I’m not shocked at the extinction, I’m shocked that I grew up in the location of the great 1871 nesting and never herd of it. I feel deprieved, now you’ve got me thinking of ways to make this history alive and shared… -jh

  25. Gary says:

    As incredible as this seems –

    There is mounting evidence (no pun intended) of some small flocks that are still alive in areas where passenger pigeons once thrived:

    http://www.horiconbirds.com/ne.....hting.html

    http://www.horiconbirds.com/sightings.html

  26. Joel says:

    Thanks for your e-mail. If nothing is impossible, the continued existence of living passenger pigeons comes as close as most anything that can be imagined. The species lived in eastern US and Canada, an area heavily studied by ornithologists and birders. They did however look a lot like mourning doves and the two were often confused even when the passenger pigeon was still extant.

  27. Joel says:

    Thanks for your kind words. Interest in the passenger pigeon continues, with the 101 anniversary of its extinction three days ago. One way to keep the bird’s memory alive is to join a conservation effort that you particularly interesting. If you like to snoop through archives and the such, try to find photos of freshly killed passenger pigeons. Only once such photo is known. If you like, contact me at joelrgreenberg@gmail.com

  28. A B Giles says:

    Good afternoon, I am based in Toronto, Ontario and am looking to acquire a (taxidermy mount of a) passenger pigeon.  I am aware of how hard this may be to find however just thought I would ask in case anyone may know of any for sale – at any cost.  Please let me know if you may have one for sale or know where I may find one. idstrategy@yahoo.com
    Regards,
    A

  29. M.L. Kwas says:

    Dear Mr. Greenberg: I just finished your very interesting and detailed book on the passenger pigeon. Regarding novels, you might like to check out “The Landlooker” by Wisconsin author William F. Steuber Jr., first published in 1957 and republished in 1991. The story is about two brothers who travel through Wisconsin in 1871 selling their family’s harness, while experiencing many of the key historical events of that year. Chapters 12-16 involve passenger pigeons.

    I also have an advertising premium card that was included in a loaf of bread that features passenger pigeons. It dates to ca. 1923. You probably have seen this, but I could send you a scan of both sides.

  30. holland shaw says:

    Good afternoon Joel,
    I left my previous message on January 23rd. I would very much like to study in as much detail and with as much clarity as possible (originals if available)”Small Wild Game of the Alleghenies”. I would also like to do the same with the photos owned by Destry Hoffard and Garrie Landry. Could you provide me with contact information for these people? Susan Wegner of Bowdoin College could perhaps be helpful as well. Ben Novak asked me yesterday for a brief bio concerning my life long interest in the passenger pigeon and how I plan to contribute long term to the Revive and Restore Project. Thanks you.

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