John Wilson Foster’s Pilgrims of the Air starts in the realm of magical realism and ends in horror. From miles of passenger pigeons blocking out the sun, to vast massacres of the bird and deforestation by humans, to a solitary last bird dying in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the story is all too easy to allegorize.

Allegories have long surrounded the passenger pigeon, so astonishing to many of its witnesses that only figures of speech could convey their wonder. They were called clouds — or, more threateningly, tempests, streams or floods, troops and regiments — and compared to the “coils of a gigantic serpent,” in John James Audubon’s recounting. Attempts at literal depictions conveyed the flocks’ grand scale — ornithologist Alexander Wilson estimated 240 miles and more than two billion pigeons in one grouping — but lacked the splendor of figurative language.

 The comparisons at times suggested an uncertainty about the birds — were they good or evil? Early European explorers in the New World saw a prelapsarian Eden, yet, Foster writes, nature’s “abundance was her abandon” in the Puritan Protestant response. The passenger pigeons, again serving as symbols, were either augurs of disaster or signs of God’s pleasure, presaging sickness (because they stayed longer during mild weather) or promising bounty. Either way, they were chaotic, not orderly — and “this new world cried out for order, discipline and overmastery through agriculture,” Foster writes. “The New World was to be a spiritual and material enterprise: colonisation obliged conversion. Native abundance, at first marvelled at, was to be harnessed and pruned; Nature was to be appropriated, exploited and marketed.”

Our knowledge of what happened to the species does not diminish the magnitude of its tragedy. The vastness of the passenger pigeon flocks shifts, horrifyingly, to the scope of their massacre, a “slaughter of the innocents, as one market gunner admitted.” The birds had long been consumed — the Potawatomi people, for instance, were among its hunters — but in the mid-19th century, harvests turned into “carnivalesque org[ies] of destruction,” and eventually the killings were “dispassionate, organised, ruthless and of an industrial scale.” Pigeoners, aided increasingly by the expansion of the railroad and information networks that let them know where to go, descended on nesting sites and mass-executed the birds using sledgehammers, fire, clubs, and guns. No destructive force seemed taboo. “As many birds as possible were killed or captured, irrespective of demand or need,” Foster writes. Milliners and taxidermists were among the beneficiaries of the killings.

Foster, a literary critic, presents this American tragedy as one of anthropocentric ego. He writes acutely and, perhaps appropriately for the subject, often in dense columns of winding prose. Even as he cites historical facts and ornithological details, there is an underlying poetry to his descriptions; the story he is telling is, ultimately, a eulogy. Most hauntingly, a subtextual question pervades Pilgrims of the Air: As temperatures rise, which species must we eulogize next?

One of the book’s most powerful poetic devices is the metaphor in its title. The birds were pilgrims and explorers; Foster writes that Ectopistes migratorius, the passenger pigeon’s scientific name, translates to “wandering wanderer.” Passenger pigeons “might embody American wilderness in which they exercised the unfenced freedom of nomads or rootless pioneers,” Foster writes, although “their nesting sites were nevertheless called cities.” As industry and pigeoners encroached, “the pilgrims of the forest became fugitives,” and within mere decades, the wandering, and the wonder, were over.

As Anne Schmauss discussed in The Santa FeNew Mexican earlier this week, 2018 has been named the Year of the Bird by the National Audubon Society, National Geographic, and other institutions. This year marks the centennial of the protective Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which arrived too late for the passenger pigeon but did save the snowy egret and other species. “The Year of the Bird might be just the wake-up call we all need to protect our birds and ourselves from the mounting threats against our world,” Schmauss writes.


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