Monday, January 30, 2012

Saving the planet... Or not

I read an article this morning that really got me thinking. In a recent issue of my local suburban Chicago newspaper, there was a story about a local author living in Westmont, Illinois, Joel Greenberg, and his campaign to raise awareness regarding the one-hundredth anniversary of the demise of a local species, the passenger pigeon.

Now you may be wondering why such an article would interest me. After all, there are a number of species that no longer exist, from the ancient dinosaurs to the more recent dodo bird, so what makes the passenger pigeon so special? The answer's simple, really... I'd never heard of the passenger pigeon!

True environmentalists (or simply those better informed about such things, including members of the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, etc) are probably now shaking their heads at the appalling extent of my ignorance. As a matter of fact, anyone who grew up east of the Mississippi may be wondering if I slept through something they'd learned about in public school or on a grade school field trip. Unfortunately, I did not grow up in the Midwest, which is why this story interests me so much.

Generations ago, off the coast of my home state of California, literally billions upon billions of sardines swam in enormous schools. Steinbeck wrote about them in his novel "Cannery Row", and my paternal great-grandparents actually worked in the Monterey, California-based canneries that provided the basis for Steinbeck's novel. Every year, millions of sardines were pulled out of the Pacific Ocean, packed in oil, canned up in easy-opening tins and shipped across the globe. An industrial machine was created that sustained thousands of fisherman and cannery workers. California's sardine industry grew into such a powerful engine of wealth that, when the sardine market collapsed, it continued on, simply grinding the sardines into fertilizer instead of food.

The story of California's sardine industry is well known to me, but the surprisingly similar (and even more cautionary) tale of the passenger pigeon was not. As the article strikingly highlights, between 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons once made their homes here in the United States, "their vast numbers when in flight stretching for miles and literally obscuring the sun." Initially viewed as a ready source of food for individual hunters, the massive numbers of passenger pigeons later inspired competitive hunts where, to win, hunters would have to kill 30,000 birds. The passenger pigeon even created an industry of sorts, where birds were hunted so that they could be shipped across the sea and sold for food.

Unlike the sardines off the coast of California, which now exist in significant (though hardly historic) numbers, the passenger pigeons are now completely extinct. Out of upwards of 5 billion birds and flocks that once "literally obscured the sun", not a single flock flies above our purple mountains majesty, not a single pair of wings takes flight above our amber waves of grain... Nor have they since the last bird died in 1914.

The 100th anniversary of this one American avian's demise is almost upon us, and I'm sure you can now see why author Joel Greenberg wants everyone to remember it... A date not to be celebrated, but rather remembered and reflected upon, so as to help prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again. If you agree, please take a moment and help spread the story.

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