Hope Is The Thing with Feathers

I first heard about this book from an Atlas Obscura podcast episode about a heath hen sculpture on Martha’s Vineyard. The piece memorialises the last known heath hen to live on earth before they went extinct. It’s part of artist Todd McGrain‘s Lost Bird Project, a set of six site-specific sculptures of bird species that have died out in North America. The project was inspired by the nonfiction book Hope Is The Thing with Feathers by historian Chris Cokinos, which borrows its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson.

This feels like a long train of inspiration — podcast episode to sculpture to book to poem. I took the second-to-last exit and read the book.

The story is a personal retelling of the extinction of six North American species of bird: the heath hen, the passenger pigeon, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Carolina parakeet, the Labrador duck and the great auk. Cokinos gives a first-person perspective on the story — combining his own personal experience researching the birds’ dwindling and disappearance with historical accounts.

For some of the birds, like the woodpecker and the duck, the species was always rare and reclusive. The Labrador duck was hunted, for example, but no naturalist ever witnessed one’s nest in the wild. Sightings became less and less frequent, and at some point hunters and scientists alike realised that the birds probably don’t exist any more, anywhere. They disappeared in the wild, somewhere, alone. For the woodpecker, last reliably seen in 1944, some birdwatchers still hold out hope, although the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared it officially extinct last year.

But for others like the pigeon, the hen, the parakeet and the auk, the story is one of squandering plenty. The birds were found everywhere around North America when Europeans arrived; he shares historical accounts where billion-bird passenger pigeon flocks blot out the sun for days, or where heath hens are the main poultry eaten multiple times per week by early colonists.

And somehow, with each, wild hunting in the 1700s and 1800s became industrialised; huge hunting parties mobilised to bring in trainloads of meat or ships full of corpses. For each species, the interruptions these culls brought to their lives and reproduction had the effect of rapid, catastrophic collapse. Counts of specimens for hunts go from millions in one decade to thousands in the next to none in the years after.

Eventually, the last of each species spent its final years in zoos, or reserves, or on remote islands. Naturalists of the early 1900s were less interested in preserving or reproducing the birds in the wild than they were in shooting the now-rare species to keep in their specimen cabinet. Even when preservation became a priority, like with the heath hens on Martha’s Vineyard, bureaucracy, poaching and habitat encroachment kept the species from flourishing again.

It’s a hard book to read; more for the emotional punch than for the quality of the writing, which is really good. Cokinos digs deep into his own feelings about the extinctions. He personally visits the spot where the last passenger pigeon was shot in Ohio, and the rocks where the last great auks were seen in the Iles de la Madeleine. He stands before a drawer filled with stuffed parakeets in the archives of a museum.

There are parts that I miss. Most of the extinctions can be blamed, pretty explicitly, on rapacious hunting and logging between 1750 and 1950. There’s not much that’s contemporary; the near misses of the California condor and the whooping crane aren’t covered. That’s understandable; it’s a book about the absolute finality of the loss of these bird species. But still, it would be good to know, why these and not those? How can we avoid this in the future?

In a time when we’re realising how destructive our presence on this continent is to biodiversity and species counts, this is a really timely book (although written in 2000). It resonated for me in a way that other, more statistical books on the topic haven’t. The data on the thousands of species disappearing into the meat grinder of modern global industrial life is just harder to engage with than the story of Booming Ben, the last heath hen who spent perhaps 5 years as the last of his kind before dying in 1932.

All in all, I recommend the book deeply for anyone interested in biodiversity. There is an ecological grief here that can be helpful for those of us who need to read it.

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