A drawer inside a white cabinet has been pulled open to reveal its contents: passenger pigeons, more than a dozen, laid on their backs in two neat rows. On each stuffed specimen, the gray and black wings are folded against the body and a white tag hangs from one leg. A caption reads, “The only place to find a passenger pigeon today is in a museum.”
I find four passenger pigeons in a corner exhibit on the fourth floor of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. The walls of this small space are arrayed with educational panels that deploy facts, descriptions, drawings, and photos (including the one above) to commemorate this extinct avian species. A panel at the beginning of the exhibit asks me to imagine flocks that once numbered in the billions, a sight that Aldo Leopold described as a “feathered tempest.”
My mind’s eye fails me. The largest group of birds I’ve ever seen was a few hundred starlings hunched together on telephone wires. Due to a lack of imagination and experience, I have to rely on the exhibit’s historical accounts of these massive flocks.
“The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse,” reads one panel, quoting Audubon. “The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.”
On another panel, the flock portrayed in Lewis Cross’s painting Passenger Pigeons in Flight resembles a long river meandering through golden skies. Pigeons in the foreground are so detailed that I can count their primary and secondary flight feathers. Back near the horizon, the flock narrows to a line. This is only half the painting, though. Below the throng, men harvesting a field raise their guns and fists in opposition. Piles of dead pigeons accumulate alongside sheaves of grain.
How people saw the passenger pigeon—as a threat to crops, as an inexhaustible source of meat, or as a creature of grace and beauty—determined this bird’s survival. How we see the pigeon today—as the loss of a bygone era or a call to action in the face of mass extinctions—might determine the survival of other species.
I not only look at the pigeons, but I look at the people looking at the pigeons. A college-aged couple spends five quiet minutes in the exhibit. In one corner, three children, accompanied by three adults, participate in an interactive exercise asking them to “Write a poem for the pigeons” on yellow Post-it notes, which they then stick to the wall.
As for the surviving skins of what was once the most plentiful bird in North America? They perch behind glass, isolated in display cases. As I circle round a male specimen, an iridescent patch of feathers on his neck changes colors, from rose to orange to yellow to lime. His throat and breast are a wash of rufous amid the gray coloring of his head, back, and wings. His glassy black eyes reflect only the museum lighting.
University of Michigan, 1109 Geddes Ave. 734-764-0478. Monday – Saturday 9-5, Sunday 12-5.