Friday, February 20, 2009

Book quote

These two paragraphs are taken from a book I read a couple of years ago and loved so much that I had to buy my own copy. :-) It remains one of the most moving nonfiction books I have ever read. It's about sea turtles and the dangers they face in today's world ... but it also paints a much greater picture of the all-important oceans and their alarming condition, and it also educates the reader on issues like marine pollution and extinction processes. Perhaps the most gripping story in the book, for me, was the one quoted here, about the fate of the passenger pigeon.

The sleek, brightly colored bird (which only slightly resembled its cousin, the urban-dwelling European immigrant, the common pigeon) was once the most abundant bird on the continent, accounting for 25 to 40 percent of the entire bird population of the United States. John James Audobon wrote that when a flock of pigeons passed, “the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse.” He later observed the aftereffects of the great flock’s roosting: trees, with trunks two feet in girth, had collapsed under the weight of so many birds. It looked, he wrote, “as if the forest had been swept by a tornado.” Like forest fires, such intermittent damage was probably an important component in keeping the forests healthy, clearing out deadwood and allowing for new growth.

Even the “inexhaustible” flocks of passenger pigeons disappeared almost overnight, in evolutionary terms. An estimated 5 billion birds were reduced to a single flock of some 250,000 individuals by the end of the nineteenth century. A group of hunters found the brood in April 1896 and by the end of that bloody day only around 5,000 individuals remained. By 1909 the number of living passenger pigeons totaled just three – two males and a female, housed in a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo. The males died in the following year. For four years, the female named Martha was the last of her species. The crowds that passed before her cage were looking at a living fossil. On September 1, 1914, at approximately 1 P.M., she died, and the passenger pigeon was gone. In the span of a single person’s lifetime, a species had gone from a population of several billion to extinction.

Osha Gray Davidson, Fire in the Turtle House
(Perseus Publishing, 2003)

My copy on BookCrossing is here.

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