A message from Martha – The extinction of the passenger pigeon and its message for today book review
by Mark Avery. Bloomsbury 304 pp rrp £16.99
Book review by Revd Peter Grimwood
Mark Avery knows about birds having worked for the RSPB for twenty five years. This is his first book but I hope it’s the first of many.
“Martha” was the last passenger pigeon on earth. She died in Cincinnati Zoo in September 1914 so this year marks the centenary of the loss of this species. They disappeared very rapidly having been one of the most numerous bird species on the planet only fifty years before. There were billions of them and as they undertook their seasonal migrations their flocks were so large that the sky was quite literally darkened by their numbers. They were an American bird largely confined to the eastern and north eastern parts of the USA.
Why did they disappear? Mark explains. The forests which were its natural habitat were cut down and they were hunted indiscriminately. The passenger pigeon was the victim of progress and the settlement of the United States of America by the “European invaders”. It was not the only species to suffer in this way. There was also the bison which once numbered nearly 30 million but had been reduced to no more than 1000 individuals by the end of the nineteenth century. Martha and her kind were the victims of economic growth and a particular and narrow vision of what constitutes progress.
Does this matter? Mark thinks it does and as Christian environmentalists we would agree with him. The diminution of the natural riches of flora and fauna on this earth leads to a poorer earth for those species that remain. Mark also describes the growth of environmental awareness and conservation movements in America which accompanied the decline of the passenger pigeon. He cites the work of John Muir and praises the work of the conservation pioneers in America including President Theodore Roosevelt. But it was all too late for the passenger pigeon!
In a final chapter entitled: “Bringing it all back home” Mark returns to rural England and to our own bird life. He has a long passage on the turtle dove once a common farmland bird and a cultural icon. It has shown an 81% decline since 1995. Is it going the way of the passenger pigeon?
Mark concludes his book with an imagined and an impassioned speech by Martha to us all:
“I forgive you for wiping out my species-you didn’t really mean to do it, and maybe you knew no better……. However the excuses are slipping away. You can now choose what kind of world you live in and what type of world you create in a way that no other species can….Whether you do better is a test of your worth as a species. You have the knowledge and ability to live sustainably on the planet but it’s a hard road from where you are now……..It’s a test of whether you care ….do you care enough? Please care. Please do better. Please start now.
Great sermon Mark! I enjoyed it. To learn more about Mark and his work go to w.w.w.markavery.info