Once upon a time, or so they say, there were so many Passenger Pigeons that some of their flocks measured not miles long, nor tens of miles long, but hundreds of miles long. And that there once was a woodpecker so magnificent that when it was spotted, folks would cry out, "Lord God!"
These birds, the Passenger Pigeon and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long have been gone from our skies. Well, there have been reports of Ivory-bills, but for the purposes of this review we'll assume there are no more.
And that's a sad and terrible thing.
Add to it the fact that there are no more Carolina Parakeets, no more Heath Hens, and no more Labrador Ducks or Great Auks, and, well, we've kind of made the argument for why the Endangered Species Act is important. But that's an issue separate from this review.
Christopher Cokinos, an award-winning writer, poet, and English professor at Utah State University, has gathered up these six feathery species and taken a longing look at them from the perspective of personal loss for their absence in the skies above our heads. He came to the story not as a long-time birder, but rather a growing birder and certainly a most curious individual who saw a colorful bird -- "an exhilarating smear of green" -- dart through the air above the Flint Hills of Kansas.
That brief flash of green launched Mr. Cokinos on a personal mission to trace six lost bird species, to learn where they lived, what their habits were, what happened to them. Fortunately for us, he took pad and pencil with him on his sleuthing, for the stories he tells of these birds are both stirring and distressing at the same time.
"...I have tried to write not only a natural history, but something more -- a chronicle at once personal and historical, a collection of factual narratives that engage where we stand now, in relation to where the birds gone and the birds remaining. We may never restore vanished birds through the promise of cloning. That may remain a Hollywood fantasy. But we can restore -- we can restory -- these vanished birds to our consciousnesses. That can be an important act of recovery of the human spirit in the non-human world."
The author takes to his task with dogged determination. His research leads one to wonder how he wound up a writer, not a detective. He visits museums, talks to curators, even retraces the steps of none other than James Tanner, who in 1935 studied Ivory-bills in the so-called "Singer Tract," a buggy area of bayous and woods in Louisiana.
He travels to Martha's Vineyard off the shores of Cape Cod to research where Heath Hens once were plentiful, and finds himself staring at a drawer holding 16 colorful Carolina Parakeet corpses in the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas.
More than complementing these efforts are the words he uses to catalog it all.
I walk down a narrow aisle cluttered with cabinets and boxes. A thirty-something man with glasses, dark hair and a mustache chats on the phone in his office. Curator and ornithologist Town Peterson gets up, smiles, shakes my hand and small-talks pleasantly. Having finished grading for the semester, he's writing up a history of ornithology in Mexico.
"I want to show you something," he says, smiling. We walk through tiny pathways between tables and cabinets -- the place looks like a high school science room that's been used as a fallout shelter. Peterson pulls out a small, clear bag from the cooler. The bag contains a tiny brown feather. "Know what this is?" he asks, and I shake my head. I'm thinking he could not only identify the species, but age and sex the bird, from this one small sample.
"It's from a moa."
There were once 20 species of moa -- all rubbed out by the Maoris, a reminder that human-driven extinction events occur among a variety of cultures. Scientist David W. Steadman has snowh that prehistoric islanders in the Pacific killed off some 2,000 bird species, diminishing by one-fifth the global number through a variety of activities, including habitat destruction. The differences today are in the scale of our extinctions, our consciousness of them and our developing understanding that time is the deepest wilderness in which we wander.
"But you came to see parakeets."
Dr. Peterson walks to a cabinet and pulls out a drawer. I glimpse a dozen or so Carolina Parakeets. What am I supposed to feel? Do I prepare myself to feel something? Is this now just too easy: See the birds and feel poignant? What kind of epiphany would that be?
Through these separate stories, bound neatly together with a select bibliography in more than 350 pages, Mr. Cokinos brings back to life, if only for our reading pleasure, some fascinating and magnificent creatures.
In an afterword written some time after the first edition came out in 2000 he addresses the arrival of climate change, its impact on species, and why it's important to keep an eye on those things with feathers overhead.
In the years since this book was first published, the torrent of bad news has sometimes felt overwhelming. Extinctions continue. The world warms. But in the midst of this, it is not apparent that nations around the planet understand that we must meet the challenge of a changing climate and all the consequences -- from erractic weather to altered habitats -- that such a future poses. Scientists are beginning to see complex shifts in bird migration patterns as responses to the new climate. For example, several Mexican species are seemingly moving into te United States. If their populations can be sustained by appropriate habitat, this will be a boon to birders seeking new species for their life lists. But it could represent the demise of some previously established species in the United States. Of course, it's incumbent on birders to help support habitat-protection measures not only in the United States, but in Mexico and other nations. It's also important to note that a great deal of work on behalf of birds and habitats rests on the volunteer efforts of birders and bird-banders. In addition to the many things individuals can do to lessen their carbon footprint -- from changing transportation habits to supporting wind and solar energy -- simply going out and participating in migration counts, Christmas Bird Counts and bird-banding (with appropriate training, of course) can help us understand how birds are adapting to the conditions at present.
Traveler's postscript: Oh, as for that "exhilarating smear of green" Mr. Cokinos saw overhead in Kansas? It turns out it likely was a Black-hooded Conure that escaped a cage.