Why You Should Remember the Passenger Pigeon

Published online on Sierra magazine’s Green Life blog, January 27, 2014

An estimated 2 billion birds darkened the sky above John James Audubon’s head in the autumn of 1813, a flock of passenger pigeons more than 50 miles long that would take three full days to pass out of view. “The birds poured in in countless multitudes,” Audubon wrote. “The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday 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.”

When Dr. Andrew Stern visits schools to teach children about the now-extinct passenger pigeon, he slowly dims the lights, turning up a radio until the sound of white noise shakes the building.

“It’s a little scary,” Stern said. “That’s what it was supposed to be like. More [birds] than is imaginable. The fact that they were gone in a little over 50 years is astounding.”

The passenger pigeon, now 100 years extinct, was once one of the most common birds in North America. Probably the largest number of birds of a single species that has ever existed on earth, says Stern. Naturalists of the time describe the enormous migrating flocks being more than a mile wide and 300 miles long, a billion birds passing overhead for several days at a time.

“That intense experience of witnessing a flock is gone,” Stern says. “No one will ever experience it again.”

In just 50 years they were hunted to near extinction. The last passenger pigeon alive died in captivity in 1914.

As executive director of arts-based environmental nonprofit The Lost Bird Project, Stern leads his team in their 2014 Fold the Flock campaign to share the birds’ story. The group calls on participants to fold their own origami passenger pigeons, symbolically recreating a flock of the lost birds. Participants can download the pattern from the Fold the Flock website, and add their own creations to the virtual flock, now numbering 7,829 paper birds.

The passenger pigeon is one of the five birds memorialized by sculptor Todd McGrain in the 2013 documentary The Lost Bird Project, the nonprofit’s first undertaking. McGrain now works with his brother-in-law Stern as creative director of the organization.

Unlike other groups that focus on extinction, Stern and his team have no plans to save a species. They instead hope to help America consider its loss. Fold the Flock is not a call to action, but a call for remembrance.

“The nature of memory for the natural world is very short,” he says. “There’s a thing that’s called ‘environmental amnesia,’ where you sort of assume unconsciously that the way the environment was when you were young is the baseline. And if it needs to be restored it should be restored to that. But that’s a completely artificial concept.”

Rather than place blame or induce guilt, The Lost Bird Project hopes to educate by preserving and sharing the memory of what’s been lost.

“Nobody alive has ever heard [a passenger pigeon], ever seen one. It’s gone, and most people know nothing about it,” he says. “So this is an attempt to shake up the amnesia, and say ‘We remember this. We remember the passenger pigeon and its lesson.’”

The colorful paper birds are intended to be a fun, family-friendly medium through which to spread the word. Most important, Stern says, the project creates much-needed community among participants.

“Separation is the cause of the whole thing,” he says. “We’re separated from each other, we’re separated from nature. So we create community, have everyone fold a paper pigeon so they feel like they belong, like they’re doing something together.”

Purchase the Fold the Flock passenger pigeon oragami kit for $12.95 or download a free folding pattern at foldtheflock.org

Read online at SierraClub.org


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