Dark Pigeon Skies

We should all be grateful for the Endangered Species Act — passed in 1973 under Richard Nixon of all people, back before Congress had turned over the legislative function to lobbyists – and upheld by the Supreme Court before that august council had become an extension of the Republican National Committee.

In fact some of us would like to strengthen the act, for example by adding humans to the endangered list so that we can be saved like the Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, and California Condors. Also, we’d like to require that large farms leave large grass buffer zones untilled, both as wildlife habitat and to keep silt-laden runoff from clogging our rivers and sticking our barges in the resulting mud.

Finally, a death penalty should be added for frackers who report (as EQT Resources did in Pennsylvania) that they had sent 21 tons of fracking fluids and drill cuttings to landfill when the actual number was 95.000 tons.

To err is human, but stretching the truth by 50 million percent is unacceptable.

Yet despite all these virtuous impulses, there are other environmental reflexes that are simply absent from my genetic kit. One such dubious pontification popped up this month with the 100th anniversary of the day Martha died in a Cincinnati zoo. She was the last living Passenger Pigeon.

Failing to lament Martha’s demise makes me a pariah, I gather, at least judging from the dirge penned by Cornell ornithologist John Fitzpatrick for the New York Times this past Sunday. He thinks Martha would ask if she could – “Have you learned anything from my passing?”

Says Fitzpatrick: “It seems that whenever humans discover bounty, it is doomed to become a fleeting resource. The fate of the cod fisheries in the late 1900s mirrors that of the Passenger Pigeon a century before. Pacific Bluefin Tuna may be next in line.” He might have added that another characteristic shared by all three species is that they’re edible.

But the tuna and cod never flew over your house three billion at a time, blotting out the blue skies and sunshine and coating your picnic table, windshield, tricycle, clothesline, and grotto of the Virgin Mary with three to five inches of bird droppings.

When the pigeons flew over a northeastern U.S. city, they would darken the sky for days on end.

To me, that state of affairs – not the subsequent extinction – was the real environmental calamity of its time. It ended with the ultimate eradication of Passenger Pigeons by the millions in their northern breeding grounds and at huge southern roosts – and shipping them by the trainload to processing plants, finally to dinner tables and restaurants as low cost “city chicken.”

It’s good to be an environmentalist. But let’s pause to note the ingenuity and resourcefulness of us true-blue, red-blooded Americans.

What do we do when engulfed in a plague of biblical proportions? We eat it!

Would that mosquitos and locusts were as tasty as city chickens.

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.