Origami pigeons and the Legacy of Martha.

Origami pigeons and the Legacy of Martha.

Cincinnati, of course, plays a special role in the history of the passenger pigeon. I was there on September 1 for the anniversary but had been invited by Xavier Univeristy to return in late October to participate in a special panel discussion organized by Karim Tiro of the History Department and James Buchanan of the Edward Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. The title of the program was ” The Legacy of Martha: The Last Passenger Pigeon and the Rise of Conservation.” The Brueggeman Center is devoted to the idea of bringing people with different backgrounds and emphases to discuss issues of public concern. This type of interdisciplinary approach is near and dear to my heart and so it was an honor to be on a panel including such people as Thane Maynard (executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo) and John Reiger, a historian. (Although not on the panel, I also had a chance to chat with P3 stalwart, Dan Marsh.)

Stan Hedeen at Big Bone Lick.

Stan Hedeen at Big Bone Lick.

Cincinnati, besides being home of the zoo, is also where my long time friend Stan Hedeen lives. Stan grew up in Evanston and was a regular on the Evanston North Shore Christmas Bird Count, where we probably first met in December 1967. He was a member of the biology faculty at Xavier for many years and then worked in administrative positions.  When I started my evangelizing to grow interest in the 2014 anniversary, I first contacted Stan as my entree into Cincinnati (see my spring 2010 blog posting  http://www.birdzilla.com/blog/2010/04/17/a-trip-to-the-holy-land-part-ii-piketon-and-cincinnati/). Through his efforts, I met Dan, Thane, Karim, and John Ruthven. He agreed to put me at his home during my stay in Cincinnati.

Getting to Cincinnati was something of a challenge. Round trip airfare on American was something like $800. Fortunately, my dynamite travel  agent Maura Stein, found a company called Ultimate Air Shuttle that flew round trip from Midway Airport to Cincinnati for just over $500. In over 20 years of being in the business Maura never heard of the airline but we booked it. It turns out that while it flies out of Midway it does not use any of the Midway terminals. Rather you have to go through a guarded gate to get to a building with a different name on it. (The operation was beginning to resemble something out of the television show Blacklist) I mentioned to one of the employees that even the web-site was unclear as to where you need to be, and she said that was in part because some of the customers prefer traveling under the proverbial radar. (The price of airfare actually declined because from Cincinnati I would up flying to DC where I rented a car to attend the American Conservation Film Festival which was bestowing an award on “From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.” Each of the three legs of the trip was with a different airline.)

Salt spring at Big Bone Lick State Historic Site.

Salt spring at Big Bone Lick State Historic Site.

Ultimate uses a genuine terminal at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, but one that was long abandoned and now only houses Ultimate. But upon my arrival, Stan and I found each other without difficulty. He took me straight away to Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky. This site has a remarkable history in that during the Pleistocene salt springs attracted large herds of two bison species, mammoths, mastodons, toed horses, and ground sloths. But the earth was soft (early European settlers called it “jelly ground”) and many of these big mammals became mired, their bones gathering over the millennia. The remains were concentrated over a ten acre site that became known as Big Bone Lick. Long known to  native people, the first European to record the remains was a French Canadian explorer who visited in 1739. Collectors followed and the specimens were distributed to museums throughout  Europe and the United States, as well as to such prominent Americans as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Scientists recognized the unique value of the place by referring to it as the “Birth Place of American Vertebrate Paleontology.” And beginning in 1953, an effort began to have the Big Lone Lick protected as a state park.  Seven years later that mission was accomplished, and over the seceding years the park has grown to 813 acres and a beautiful museum has been erected.

Big Bone Lick  Museum exhibit.

Big Bone Lick Museum exhibit.

Stan had a personal interest in the park, having been active in the creation of the interpretative signage. He shared one anomaly in the paleontological  record of Big Bone Lick: despite all the large vertebrates present, no one has ever found the remains of a saber-toothed cat or any other predator.

Cincinnati Museum Center.

Cincinnati Museum Center.

The next morning we went to the Cincinnati Museum Center. The center is unusual, if not unique, in being located at the former Union Terminal. The exhibits had to be constructed to correspond to the long spaces characteristic of train stations.  The other element that contributes to the center’s distinctiveness is that it is comprised of  three separate museums (in addition to an OMNIMAX theater and history library): the Cincinnati History Museum, Duke Energy Children’s Museum, and the Museum of Natural History and Science.  There are some unfortunate aspects to the museum as well. Recently, it was established that the rebar within the building’s frame had rusted to the point of compromising the integrity of the structure. A lage bond referendum was passed last fall and the funds will be available to restore the building, but during that process the museum will be closed for over a year. And second, like many museums, curators have been jettisoned so that the valuable bird collection receives mainly the attention of volunteers, including Stan.

Inside of museum.

Inside of museum.

Being an old collection, the museum has a goodly number of both passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets. The last Carolina parakeet to die in captivity was Incas, who spent his days in the Cincinnati Zoo until he perished in February 21, 1918 (the anniversary is approaching). Unlike Martha, his body was never placed in a big block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian where his arrival was well marked. As far as I know, Incas’ fate has never been established. The Cincinnati Museum would be a likely repository for the local celebrity  but none of the parakeets have any provenance so it is impossible to know if Incas is amongst them. As far as I can tell, every passenger pigeon in captivity after 1900, with the exception of  Martha, were thrown away when they died. I was struck therefore by one pigeon in the collection that did originate from the zoo. But the year was 1883.

Carolina parakeet.

Carolina parakeet.

The museum has two other truly extraordinary avian specimens. a great auk and great auk egg. They acquired the mount and egg in a special purchase made many decades ago. Great auks became extinct in  July1844 when three collectors ascended Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland.  Two of the men wrung the necks of the only pair they found while a third smashed the lone egg.

 

Great auk.

Great auk.

 

Great auk egg.

Great auk egg.

 

David Mrazek and blogger accepting award from American Conservation Film Festival.

David Mrazek and blogger accepting award from American Conservation Film Festival.

4 Comments to “Can’t Keep Away From Cincinnati”

  1. Paul James says:

    Nice one, Joel. I’ve been to the Cincinnati collections too. Their Great Auk is a beauty and generally the bird specimens are impressive!

  2. Joel says:

    Thanks for your comment. The specimens are gorgeous, it is just too bad there is no bird curator.

  3. Dave Might says:

    I am looking to get permission and credit info for your pics of Big Bone Lick for an exhibit we are doing here at CMC. Can you give me some info on that? Thanks

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