Norman Rockwell painting of John Audubon and passenger pigeons at the Smithsonian.

Norman Rockwell painting of John Audubon and passenger pigeons at the Smithsonian.

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.

Karen, Mike, and David at the Red Fox Inn.

Karen, Mike, and David at the Red Fox Inn.

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.

Horse country of northern Virginia.

Horse country of northern Virginia.

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.

Blogger and Gary.

Blogger and Gary.

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).

One of the latest passenger pigeons (bottom) and farthest west pp (middle).

One of the latest passenger pigeons (bottom) and farthest west pp (middle).

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.

 

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