Why Aldo Leopold’s “On a Monument to the Pigeon” is worth re-reading today

9/1/2014 | 0

Stanley A. Temple, University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor of forest and wildlife ecology and senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, inside the historic Aldo Leopold Shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

Stanley A. Temple, University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor of forest and wildlife ecology and senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, inside the historic Aldo Leopold Shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

On May 17, 2014, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology rededicated a monument to the Passenger Pigeon that it had erected in Wyalusing State Park, in southwestern Wisconsin, in 1947. At the rededication ceremony, Stanley A. Temple, Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Senior Fellow, Aldo Leopold Foundation, delivered the following keynote.

We are meeting here today to mark another milestone in the ongoing saga of the Passenger Pigeon.

• 200 years ago there were 3-5 billion pigeons wandering the eastern half of North America in huge flocks that darken the sky as they passed overhead.

• 143 years ago, in 1871, central Wisconsin hosted the largest nesting of pigeons ever recorded, covering a core area of 850 square miles and numbering in the hundreds of millions of birds. Tens of millions of them were killed.

• 115 years ago, in 1899, the last pigeon in Wisconsin was shot near Babcock, just 28 years after the pigeon’s epic nesting.

• 112 years ago, in 1902, the last pigeon in the wild was shot in Indiana.

• 100 years ago, in 1914, Martha, the last living Passenger Pigeon, died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, and her species became extinct.

Aldo Leopold in 1942. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, www.aldoleopold.org.

Aldo Leopold in 1942. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, www.aldoleopold.org.

• 67 years ago, in 1947, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology erected this monument to the Passenger Pigeon, the first time we had publicly commemorated an extinction that our species had caused.

On the occasion of the 1947 dedication of the Passenger Pigeon Monument, Aldo Leopold captured the significance of the monument when he penned his essay “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” regarded by many as the most poignant essay ever written about extinction. You have a reprinted copy of the booklet, Silent Wings: A Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon, in which his essay first appeared. I quote from it here.

Read “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” the essay written by Aldo Leopold in 1947.

“We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow… For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss.”

Leopold also noted that the pigeons that are still with us are no substitute for having the real living pigeons.

“There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights… They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather; they live forever by not living at all.”

But Leopold also recognized that while pigeons might “live forever” in books and museums, our collective memory of the Passenger Pigeon would fade.

“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live that, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

Even in 1947 Leopold recognized that the tragic story of the Passenger Pigeon’s demise would soon be forgotten. Now, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the pigeon’s extinction, Leopold’s prediction has unfortunately come true. Today, few recognize the Passenger Pigeon and even fewer know the story of why it is no longer with us. That’s why in 2014 Project Passenger Pigeon is taking full advantage of the teachable moment presented by the centennial to remind people about the pigeon story and its lessons for today as we are confronted with a mass extinction that has steadily worsened since the pigeon’s demise. It’s also why the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology is rededicating the Passenger Pigeon Monument today.

Lest we feel smug about having erected a monument, Leopold reminded us that we still haven’t fully understood the significance of what happened to the pigeon.

“We who erect this monument are performing a dangerous act. Because our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon. The truth is that our grandfathers, who did the actual killing, were our agents. They were our agents in the sense that they shared the conviction, which we have only now begun to doubt, that it is more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing here today is publicly to confess a doubt whether this is true. This, then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained.”

The plaque on the Passenger Pigeon Monument. Artist Owen Gromme sketched the bird. Ornithologist A. W. Schorger drafted the inscription: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” Reproduced with permission of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

The plaque on the Passenger Pigeon Monument. Artist Owen Gromme sketched the bird. Ornithologist A. W. Schorger drafted the inscription: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” Reproduced with permission of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

“In these things… lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts. That evidence would be more convincing if we had learned to foresee and forestall funerals, as well as to erect monuments to the dead… These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.”

A meaningful attempt to “foresee and forestall” human-caused extinctions would take another 26 years after Leopold wrote those words and 59 years after the pigeon’s extinction. With passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 our country finally pledged to identify species that were being threatened with extinction by our actions and implement conservation programs to recover them to a secure status. We can take pride in being the first nation to make such a pledge, but our commitment to endangered species seems, like the memory of the Passenger Pigeon, to have faded. How many of you know the significance of yesterday, May 16th? As I suspected, none of you knew that yesterday was officially Endangered Species Day, a national day of recognition of our concern for the extinction crisis. And the Endangered Species Act is, itself, becoming endangered as special interest groups who are inconvenienced by our national commitment to forestall extinctions relentlessly attack it. As we meet here today bills have been introduced in Congress that would essentially repeal or significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Global and national endangered species lists are growing at alarming rates, foreshadowing imminent funerals for many species. Currently, 12% of the world’s birds are threatened. We are causing the sixth mass extinction of species in the 3.5 billion-year history of life on Earth. Right now we are losing several species per day, thousands per year, at over 1000 times the rate to be expected if we weren’t overkilling species, destroying their habitats, introducing invasive species and stressing their environment with pollutants. Most of those species are less famous than the Passenger Pigeon and will become extinct without having monuments erected. Even the most dedicated conservationists won’t note most of the losses. Can any of you name even a single species that has become extinct this month, in the past year?

Thanks to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, there is at least one extinct species whose passing will never be forgotten. In 2114 there will undoubtedly be another commemoration here at the Passenger Pigeon Monument, reminding another generation to never forget what we did to the continent’s most abundant bird. One hopes that by then we will finally have demonstrated our superiority by humbly learning from the past and committing ourselves to mastering what Aldo Leopold called “the oldest task in human history,” living on this planet without spoiling it. – Stanley A. Temple

Remarks made as part of the rededication ceremony for the monument commemorating the extinction of Passenger Pigeon, Wyalusing State Park, May 17, 2014, by Stanley A. Temple. Temple is Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Senior Fellow, Aldo Leopold Foundation. For 32 years, he held the academic position occupied by Aldo Leopold.

Reproduced with the permission of Stanley A. Temple and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. Also available at http://wsobirds.org/?p=5574#more-5574.

Read “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” the essay written by Aldo Leopold in 1947.

Download maps, get directions, and learn about Wyalusing State Park (Wisconsin DNR).

Read “Like Meteors from Heaven,” Joel Greenberg’s article about the Passenger Pigeon (BirdWatching).