In August, I wrote a column to commemorate the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon 100 years ago. Passenger Pigeons once numbered in the billions.  Some ornithologists believe that 40% of all North American birds were Passenger Pigeons.

Errol Fuller has written an informative book called The Passenger Pigeon in this sad centennial year.  The book is not an exhaustive treatment of our knowledge of Passenger Pigeons.  Rather it is a celebration of this departed species through a mix of prose, paintings and photographs.

errol fullerThe author begins with a chapter on other extinct species of birds that disappeared because of human impacts, including Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, and Labrador Duck.

Other chapters deal with the mind-boggling descriptions of Passenger Pigeon abundance in the early 19th century, the morphology of the bird, the rapid decline from human hunting and ultimate extinction of these pigeons in the wild, the efforts to maintain these birds in aviaries, and finally the extinction of the last Passenger Pigeon in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

Fuller cites Alexander Wilson, the author of the first ornithological treatise on North American birds, who calculated that over two billion birds flew over a spot in Kentucky over a period of four hours.  Audubon made a similar calculation, estimating over one billion birds.  The mind reels.

The book is filled with interesting tidbits.  I learned that the name Passenger Pigeon is derived from the French word passager, meaning traveler.  I was also fascinated by the efforts of a few men to maintain (unsuccessfully) Passenger Pigeons in aviaries around 1900 when only a few Passenger Pigeons survived in the wild.


The Unfeathered Bird

The plumage of birds, often gaudy, sometimes cryptic, is the feature most of us concentrate on when watching birds and clinching an identification.  The internal anatomy of birds differs greatly among species.  Differences in the skeletons of various birds are, of course, hard to appreciate in a living bird.  Katrina van Grouw helps us to see the diversity of internal anatomy in her recent book, The Unfeathered Bird.

unfeathered bird

An unfeathered coot.

Van Grouw has prepared nearly 400 illustrations of 200 species of birds from around the world.  We see birds doing their natural behaviors but only the skeletons are shown.  The feathers are stripped away so we can really appreciate the relationship between form and function of the skeleton.  Each specimen is drawn from an actual specimen.

Van Grouw is uniquely qualified to author and illustrate this book.  She was formerly a curator of the ornithological collections in the Natural History Museum in London.  She has handled many living birds as a bird bander and dead birds as a taxidermist.  Finally she is a graduate of the Royal College of Art.

The first part of the book is a general introduction to the bird skeleton.  The remainder of the book is organized into sections based on bird types (raptors, woodpeckers and their relatives, waterfowl and waterbirds, wading birds, game birds, and perching birds).

The book need not be read from front to back.  I delight in just opening the book randomly to see the skeleton and read the descriptive text of a particular bird.

Here’s a taste of the book.  The Secretary Bird from Africa is a snake-eater.  These birds have the longest legs of any bird of prey.  Unlike other birds with long legs, a Secretary Bird has a short neck.  The short neck keeps the bird’s head away from dangerous snakes that have no stake in becoming lunch for the Secretary Bird.  Secretary Birds have to bend their legs to reach the ground to eat or drink.

The toes of a Secretary Bird are quite short, far less formidable than the talons of a typical raptor.  A Secretary Bird kills its snake prey by kicking the snake to death.  Form and function meet perfectly.

[Originally published on September 28, 2014]