Urban Ecology Center on the Milwaukee River.

Urban Ecology Center on the Milwaukee River.

 

My March 31 talk at the Urban Ecology Center was mostly through the effort of Christina Clancy, an English Professor at Beloit College. She had contacted me sometime earlier with the news that her college was going to devote next semester to passenger pigeons: there would be classes in most every discipline where passenger pigeons would be a part. This was thrilling to me, as I am aware of faculty in at least two other schools who tried  unsuccessfully to get passenger pigeons incorporated into the activities of their institution.  Christina has me booked to speak at the college next fall and I may just amble over on my own to catch some of the programming on tap.

The Urban Ecology Center is a remarkable and unusual entity. They have three sites: the one which hosted me is in Riverside Park. The organization came into being when growing crime rates and a neglected park led citizens to conclude that environmental restoration and involvement would be a good way to turn the tide.  In 1991, according to their web-site, “they organized park clean ups and started to use the park to teach neighborhood students about nature and science.”  The center where I spoke has a lookout on the roof and a fascinating interior that has live fish and herps, as well as sofas and free coffee that creates a wonderfully friendly and informal ambience.

I arrived at the center and met Tim Vargo, Manager of Research and Citizen Science. A little while later we were joined by Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor of BirdWatching magazine. Matt and I had never crossed paths before in person, but I have worked with him during my writing of three articles for the magazine. We headed off to a Belgian restaurant (a cuisine unfamiliar to me beyond waffles and sprouts.  Our dinner party was quite large and included Christina, members of her family, Collin Sprenkle (a student of Christina’s whose passion for passionger pigeons is very strong, as manifested in the delightful article she wrote of the evening for the college newspaper), and Ken Leinbach, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center (his favorite mode of summer transportation is unicycle). Dinner was a hoot. It would have been reason enough to visit. The talk itself was well-attended and everything proceeded in fine fashion.

Dinner with my Milwaukee friends.

Dinner with my Milwaukee friends.

The center I was at, 1500 East Park Place, overlooks the Milwaukee River. This is an incredibly important place in the history of the passenger pigeon, for it was here, for most of the period from 1888 to 1909, that David Whittaker raised passenger pigeons in a coop next to his house. He claimed in a 1928 article, published when he was 89 years old (he died later that year), that he produced 72 passenger pigeons, all descended from a single pair he obtained from Shawano, Wisconsin. If this is true, there is no record of where most of them wound up.

In 1896, he said he had 18 birds. But while on a trip, he returned to find that all of his birds had been stolen. He was to learn that the entire lot was sold for $1,500 to Professor Charles Otis Whitman of the University of Chicago. Whittaker exculpates Whitman from any knowledge of the crime, and eventually received some of them back. It is curious to note that 1896 was a big year for those particular passenger pigeons: Whitman had many of them photographed (these represent  almost all the photos ever taken of  live passenger pigeons) and it was in this year, obviously before the theft, that Chicago ornithologist Ruthven Deane visited the Milwaukee birds and wrote about what he saw in the Auk.  And I was where this mystery began.

 

Whittaker's house on the left: in the back yard was his passenger pigeon flock.

Whittaker’s house on the left: in the back yard was his passenger pigeon flock.

 

Christina introducing Blogger.

Christina introducing Blogger.

 

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