Columbus & the Pigeons

In response to:

When Did the Great Flocks Arrive? from the February 20, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Elizabeth Kolbert’s response to Jane D. Saxton’s query about the pre-Columbian presence of vast numbers of passenger pigeons [Letters, NYR, February 20] surprised me in light of Charles C. Mann’s discussion of the subject in his book 1491 (Knopf, 2005, pp. 363–371). Mann cites Thomas W. Neumann, who concluded from the sparsity of passenger pigeon bones at Indian burial sites that they were not as numerous before Columbus: “What happened was that the impact of European contact altered the ecological dynamics in such a way that the passenger pigeon took off.” Mann compares the phenomenon to the extraordinary herds of bison observed by La Salle in the seventeenth century—but not by De Soto in the sixteenth.

Robert Dankoff
Professor Emeritus of Turkish and Islamic Studies
University of Chicago
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania