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 Passenger Pigeon, A Forgotten Ghost 
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Post Passenger Pigeon, A Forgotten Ghost
Passenger Pigeon, A Forgotten Ghost
by: Sherrida Woodley




When a story, especially something as long as a novel begins to take shape in a writer's mind, characters often click into place. Or they evolve in a painstaking process. Occasionally, one darts into view in stealing glances or a flash of feathers. This happened to me in the summer of 2005 when I began to construct a novel around a modern-day flu pandemic. I was looking for a pivotal character in the form of an animal, particularly a bird that could carry the mystery of the story and take it beyond a human catastrophe. For a while, I considered the Ivory Bill Woodpecker, an "extinct" bird making headlines at the time. But this species had current widespread media coverage. I was looking for a ghost-a real one. That's when I discovered the passenger pigeon, one of America's saddest extinctions, and the likely carrier of a controversial anti-virus in my novel.

When I found the passenger pigeon, I knew the crevice in history was just right to accommodate a pandemic and this particular species. In actuality, the passenger pigeon missed the last flu epidemic by four years. The single remaining bird of its kind, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914. I looked for some kind of connection between the die-out of the passengers and the pandemic that was building to a crescendo in the human population the first years of the 20th century, but there really was none. They seemed to be two separate disasters coming together at almost the same time. So when I began the process of building the dynamic of keeping a bird "alive" through its apparent extinction and having it come together head-on with another pandemic one hundred years later, the power in the story, I realized, was being generated by the bird itself. No longer just a footnote to a violent, deadly time in American history, the passenger pigeon was now avital force to reckon with. It had been given re-birth through story.

I continued to read accountings of people who witnessed these pigeons in their amazing heyday-Audubon, settlers in the Midwest, a Native American Chief. A much-later book, Hope Is The Thing With Feathers, recalled not only the success, but horrific fall of birds that once filled America's skies in flocks virtually days long. From this, I became obsessed with the idea of creating a male passenger pigeon having the body of a passenger and the attitude of a peregrine. But facts witnessed and documented couldn't be denied. According to the most trusted bird watchers of that time, the passenger was prolific and dynamic in flight, but was mindless without its massive numbers. The trigger was man, and when he began to cut forest and hunt mercilessly, the bird succumbed. There was no turning back for the famous bird of passage.

Nothing strikes a meaner blow than to hear of what we've wrought upon so many bird species. Audubon, himself, with his great love of birds, destroyed many for the sake of accuracy in his art. But the widespread slaughter of America's passenger pigeon is almost without equal. One accounting in the spring of 1880 in a Michigan nesting site notes dry birch trees being set afire in an explosion that blasted its way up trees sending young birds leaping outward, flightless, while parents flew upward amid flames, their plumage scorched and dying. Several thousand were witnessed to die by this manner, and this was only one incident. Cruelty aside, the vast numbers were diminished, even by 1880, and the passenger was doomed. There was and still is a sadness I feel about it, as if I witnessed it through my grandparents and their parents. As if their compassion, fruitless as it must have been, has been rekindled in me.

Perhaps that is why in this time of fleeting glimpses of Ivory Bills and now oil-sodden brown pelicans, I decided to take a moment to remember a bird long forgotten-whose fate happened to throw in with the birth of industrialization, of a thriving timber industry, and the disregard of most of America. No doubt, it would've been incompatible with us in its sheer numbers, its dung falling like snow across hundreds of miles of forest. No pilot could've maneuvered through millions of birds in flocks that took days to pass. Today, the passenger pigeon would, no doubt, meet with the same fate. Conditions in the 21st century are even less tolerant for birds that cannot adapt to that tenuous edge between threatened and extinct-a convenient place to keep a species when flourishing might mean a clear and natural "inconvenience." More than most other extinctions, this particular bird provided a glorious show, then an even more glorious disappearance. Mute and caged, the long-lived Martha gave her life to scrutiny, and when she died in September 1914 the pronouncement of "Extinct Species" was heard round the world.

About The Author
Could the passenger pigeon cause a pandemic, then cure it, all the while outwitting extinction? Sherrida Woodley's novel, Quick Fall of Light, considers these questions in a story of a modern-day flu pandemic. A novel of speculative fiction, some have called it an all-out eco-thriller for our time. Find out more at http://www.quickfalloflight.com
The author invites you to visit:
http://www.quickfalloflight.com




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Mon Jan 03, 2011 10:36 am
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