Artwork by Chantal Lavoie

When the Sky was a Different Colour

September a Milestone in Modern Extinction

I started calling myself a “conservation journalist” on September 1st of 2014, not because anyone hired me or because the market was hungry for stories on climate change or species-at-risk, but because a bird named Martha died in a cage exactly 100 years before, and no one seemed to give a damn.

Martha was a Passenger pigeon, the very last of an exceptional species, known not for their pretty songs or charming plumage, but for their population. At the time of European settlement these pigeons numbered 3-5 billion individuals across North America, coming together in migratory flocks so stupendous they blotted out the sun for days at a time. As recently as 1860, a single flock plunged Toronto into darkness for fourteen consecutive hours, an apocalyptic spectacle involving no fewer than one billion birds, flowing over the continent like a river.

Their history reads like a Jules Verne novel, birds become a force of nature under which humanity is humbled. They congregated on trees in densities so great that even hardy oaks collapsed under the weight. The collective beat of their wings sounded so catastrophic that grown men mistook them for tornadoes, diving under kitchen tables. And when they flew, the sky briefly took on the copper tint of their feathers. They accounted for 25-40 per cent of all the continent’s birds, by themselves a sizeable chunk of the biosphere.

And we destroyed them. All of them.

Martha, in 1914, in her cage // Source: Wikipedia 

Heedless of their nesting seasons, unconcerned with wasted meat, unburdened by complex concepts like biodiversity or mass extinction, we killed the Passenger pigeon wherever it could be found, sometimes for food, sometime for industry, often for sport. We raided their roosting sites with ladders and lanterns, wrangled them from the air with nets and hammers, and whenever their mega-flocks took to the skies, people across the continent shot them down, pumping a continuous volley of lead and steel into the moving mass of birds.

From the one billion who passed over Toronto in 1860, we narrowed their global population down to a single individual by 1914, enduring captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo: sweet Martha, unwilling to sing or fly for onlookers, unless they threw handfuls of sand through the bars, shocking this poor creature from her profound loneliness.

Theirs is an incredible story, orders of magnitude more gripping, more relevant and more consequential than the political yawps of leadership, than the shared mythologies of economics and industry, than the junior sporting events which had once taken up so much of my time as a country reporter in Atlantic Canada. If the death of Martha could mean so little to Canadians in 1914 and again in 2014, it could only be because her story wasn’t told well enough, often enough, or with the appropriate context, gravity and language.

Since declaring myself a conservation journalist, I have written almost exclusively about the hemorrhaging of our biosphere and our role therein, bringing these ongoing narratives to the public regionally and nationally. In the intervening years I have encountered Blue whales in the Gulf of St Lawrence, Gaspé caribou in the mountains of eastern Quebec, Atlantic whitefish in the freshwater lakes of southern Nova Scotia, Atlantic puffins on the remote islands of New Brunswick and American chestnuts in private arboretums on Prince Edward Island, each of them a modern Martha in different stages of crisis, asking us questions both impossible and unfair. Are our fisheries worth the death of whales? Why should we fight for trees with no commercial value? Should extinct pigeons be cloned back to life, and would these clones be the same as their predecessors? How would we even know?

We have visited too much pain on this planet to continue on the path of unconscious entitlement, but I’ve broached these narratives for some time now, and I have found no reason for despair. All predictions of doom for ourselves and the planet fail to account for the pace of change in the human soul. More now than ever, when I tell these stories, people listen, and there are other storytellers altogether, sharing these narratives in new and inspiring tones.

Ours is the turning point of history, and we need new stories just as desperately as we need new technologies, stories of optimism, belligerence, grace, passion and loss. We need always to ask where we’re going and where we’ve been, and to do so with vision and sobriety both. Martha, and the first day of September, is a good place for us to start.

(Join us in enjoying Zack Metcalfe’s work as he launches his column, Eastern Perspectives, with readers of Alternatives Journal, online and in-magazine)




Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes.