Born on this date in 1789, James Fenimore Cooper was not only America’s first professional novelist but the creator, in The Pioneers (1823), his first of five Leatherstocking novels, of what Matthew Wynn Sivils calls [PDF] “one of the first works of environmental American literature.” Thirteen years before Emerson’s Nature and thirty-one years before Thoreau’s Walden, The Pioneers broke sales records by selling 3,500 copies before noon on the day of publication.
In one of the novel’s most memorable passages Natty Bumppo—the main character who will also go by the names Leatherstocking, Deerslayer, Pathfinder, and Hawkeye over the five novels—witnesses the entire town of Templeton gathering to assault an incoming flock of passenger pigeons:
So prodigious was the number of the birds that the scattering fire of the guns, with the hurling of missiles and the cries of the boys, had no other effect than to break off small flocks from the immense masses that continued to dart along the valley, as if the whole of the feathered tribe were pouring through that one pass. None pretended to collect the game, which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion as to cover the very ground with fluttering victims.Bumppo warns that the townsfolks’ “wasty ways” will have consequences—and his prediction will come true; within a century the passenger pigeon will become extinct, mostly because of overhunting.
Leatherstocking was a silent but uneasy spectator of all these proceedings, but was able to keep his sentiments to himself until he saw the introduction of the swivel [a cannon filled with buckshot] into the sports.
“This comes of settling a country!” he said—“here have I known the pigeon to fly for forty long years, and, till you made your clearings, there was nobody to skeart or to hurt them. I loved to see them come into the woods, for they were company to a body, hurting nothing—being, as it was, as harmless as a garter-snake. But now it gives me some thoughts when I hear the frighty things whizzing through the air, for I know it’s only a motion to bring out all the brats of the village.”
The size of the flocks of passenger pigeons in the nineteenth century was a continual source of wonder. In his entry on the bird in Ornithological Biography (1831–39) John James Aububon marvels at a flock passing overhead:
The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.Audubon’s account of a hunting party’s ambush of passenger pigeons returning to their roost trees in Kentucky in 1813 bears an eerie likeness to Cooper’s scene:
As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were knocked down by the pole men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent, as well as wonderful, almost terrifying sight presented itself.The last passenger pigeon in captivity, “Martha,” died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. In “The Last Passenger Pigeon” the novelist and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter encounters a lone rare wild passenger pigeon outside Cincinnati in 1910:
Its eyes were big and liquid and it constantly turned its head in all direction. As it struck the wire it uttered a queer cry. It was not in the least like the notes of doves or pigeons. It was in a high key and it was a questioning note. As nearly as I could translate it into words it cried “See? See? See?” in hurried utterance. . . The bird might very well have been crying “See? See? See what you have done to me? . . . Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, today I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of any kind! See what you have done to me? See! See! See!”Because of its sudden change from ubiquitous to extinct, the passenger pigeon is a frequent topic for environmental blog posts. Tina Bay writes about the pigeon’s possible connection to Lyme disease, Mark Gelbart weighs in on the controversy over possible previous fluctuations in passenger pigeon populations, and Delmar Dustpan’s recent post quotes Robinson Jeffers’s poem “Passenger Pigeons.”
Related LOA works: James Fenimore Cooper: The Leatherstocking Tales (in two volumes); John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings; American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (includes “The Last Passenger Pigeon”)