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When Did the Great Flocks Arrive?

In response to:

They Covered the Sky, and Then... from the January 9, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of A Feathered River Across the Sky [NYR, January 9], Elizabeth Kolbert refers to the multitudes of passenger pigeons that were documented by Audubon, Muir, and others. But what is the archaeological evidence for such huge populations before the arrival of Columbus? Billion-strong flocks of birds with voracious appetites for mast and maize sound more like a manifestation of ecological disturbance than natural population growth. I haven’t seen this issue discussed in any reviews of this book and wonder if Ms. Kolbert is aware of sources establishing a pre-Columbian presence of vast numbers of passenger pigeons.

Jane D. Saxton
Director of Library Services
Bastyr University
Kenmore, Washington

Elizabeth Kolbert replies:

I have not seen this issue discussed in the literature and therefore can only speculate. In A Feathered River Across the Sky, Joel Greenberg includes several descriptions of great flocks of passenger pigeons that were written in the early decades of the seventeenth century. This was before the Europeans had transformed the landscape, and it would seem to preclude the possibility that the flocks arose in response to the colonization. All available evidence suggests that passenger pigeons were slow to reproduce, a characteristic that probably made them vulnerable to extinction. This same characteristic would, presumably, have limited the rate at which the size of flocks could grow.

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