ONE OUT OF EVERY FOUR BIRDS
When passenger pigeons drank, they stuck their heads beneath the surface of the water until they were eye deep. When they walked, their heads bobbed awkwardly and they looked around from side to side. Passenger pigeons were greedy eaters with terrible manners; if they found some food they liked just after finishing a meal, they would vomit what they had previously eaten and dig in. Gobbling their chow, they sometimes twittered in tones musical enough that people mistook them for little girls. They gorged on so many beechnuts and acorns that they sometimes fell off their perches and burst apart when they hit the ground. But in flight they were angelic: they cut through the air with such speed and grace that they were called “blue meteors.”
When passenger pigeons found an area with grain or nuts to eat, they formed a long, linear front that advanced forward, heads peck-peck-pecking at the ground. Acorns, beechnuts, and chestnuts; strawberries, huckleberries, and blackberries; wheat, oats, and maize—all went down the pigeons’ iridescently feathered gullets. To grab their share, the pigeons at the rear constantly fluttered over the heads of their compatriots and landed at the leading edge of the front. Then the birds in the back flew over them. The line of birds advanced in a continuous swirl, the conservationist John Muir recalled, “revolving something like a wheel with a low buzzing wing roar that could be heard a long way off.”
Passenger pigeons traveled in massive assemblies, billions strong, that rained enough excrement to force people indoors. As a boy Muir saw a mob of birds sweep “thousands of acres perfectly clean of acorns in a few minutes.” Pigeons destroyed farm fields so often that the bishop of Quebec formally excommunicated the species in 1703. A hundred and ten years later the artist and naturalist John J. Audubon saw a flock passing overhead in a single cloud for three whole days. “The air,” Audubon wrote later, “was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse.” When he visited their roost, the “dung lay almost two inches deep” for miles.
The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogsheads were formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak [over the roar of wings], or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me.
According to Arlie W. Schorger, author of a definitive study on the bird, in Audubon’s day at least one out of every four birds in North America was a passenger pigeon.
In colonial times, the Haudenosaunee celebrated pigeon roostings by gathering around the birds for a massive feast. Horatio Jones, captured as a teenager by the Seneca (one of the six nations in the alliance), participated around 1782 in a mass pigeon hunt near the Genesee River. The birds, roosting on low branches, were too full and too stupid to flee. Men knocked them down with poles or toppled the trees they were sitting on. Children wrung the birds’ necks while women stewed them in pots, smoked them over fires, and dried them to preserve in storehouses. Sometimes the Seneca ate half a dozen squabs at a time, necks tied together in a carnivorous sculpture. “It was a festival season,” Jones later recalled. “Even the meanest dog in camp had his fill of pigeon meat.” In Haudenosaunee lore, the birds represented nature’s generosity, a species literally selected by the spirit world to nourish humankind.
Non-Indians, too, saw the pigeon as a symbol of the earth’s richness—“the living, pulsing, throbbing, and picturesque illustration of the abundance of food, prepared by bountiful Nature, in all her supreme ecstasy of redundant production of life and energy,” one businessman/pigeon enthusiast gushed. Colonists grilled the birds, stewed them with salt pork, and baked them into pies; they plucked their feathers to stuff mattresses, pickled them in barrels as a winter treat, and fed them to livestock. Incredibly, hunters in the countryside captured tens of thousands of pigeons in nets and sent the living birds to urban hunting clubs for target practice.
Then, suddenly, the passenger pigeon vanished—the last bird, Martha, named after Martha Washington, died on September 1, 1914. The passenger pigeon remained an emblem of natural bounty, but now it also represented the squandering of that bounty. In 1947 the conservationist Aldo Leopold dedicated a monument to the pigeon near the site of its greatest recorded nesting, at which hunters slaughtered 1.5 million birds. The plaque read: “This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”
The pigeon should indeed stand as a rebuke and warning. But if archaeologists are right it should not be thought of as a symbol of wilderness abundance.
Passenger pigeons’ diet centered on mast, the collective name for acorns, beechnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, and the like; they also really liked maize. All were important foods to the Indians of eastern North America. Thus passenger pigeons and Native Americans were ecological competitors.
What would be the expected outcome of this rivalry? asked Thomas W. Neumann, a consulting archaeologist in Atlanta. Neumann noted that Indians had also vied for mast and maize with deer, raccoons, squirrels, and turkeys. Unsurprisingly, they hunted all of them with enthusiasm, as documented by the bones found in archaeological sites. Indeed, as Neumann noted, Indians actually sought out pregnant or nursing does, which hunters today are instructed to let go. They hunted wild turkey in spring, just before they laid eggs (if they had waited until the eggs hatched, the poults could have survived, because they will follow any hen). The effect was to remove competition for tree nuts. The pattern was so consistent, Neumann told me, that Indians must have been purposefully reducing the number of deer, raccoons, and turkeys.
Given passenger pigeons’ Brobdingnagian appetites for mast and maize, one would expect that Indians would also have hunted them and wanted to keep down their numbers. Thus their bones should be plentiful at archaeological sites. Instead, Neumann told me, “they almost aren’t there—it looks like people just didn’t eat them.” Pigeons, roosting en masse, were easy to harvest, as the Seneca hunt showed. “If they are so easy to hunt, and you expect people to minimize labor and maximize return, you should have archaeological sites just filled with these things. Well, you don’t.” To Neumann, the conclusion was obvious: passenger pigeons 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.” The avian throngs Audubon saw were “outbreak populations—always a symptom of an extraordinarily disrupted ecological system.”
Intrigued by Neumann’s arguments, William I. Woods, the Cahokia researcher, and Bernd Herrmann, an environmental historian at the University of Göttingen, surveyed six archaeological studies of diets at Cahokia and places nearby. All were not far from the site of the huge pigeon roost that Audubon visited. The studies examined household food trash and found that traces of passenger pigeon were rare. Given that Cahokians consumed “almost every other animal protein source,” Herrmann and Woods wrote, “one must conclude that the passenger pigeon was simply not available for exploitation in significant numbers.”
Some archaeologists have criticized these conclusions on the grounds that passenger pigeon bones would not be likely to be preserved. If so, their absence would reveal nothing about whether Indians ate the species. But all six Cahokia projects found plenty of bird bones, and even some tiny bones from fish; one turned up 9,053 bones from 72 bird species. “They found a few passenger pigeon bones, but only a few,” Woods told me. “Now, these were hungry people who were very interested in acquiring protein. The simplest explanation for the lack of passenger pigeon bones is a lack of passenger pigeons. Prior to 1492, this was a rare species.”
Passenger pigeons were but one example of a larger phenomenon. According to the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, North America at the time of Columbus was home to sixty million bison, thirty to forty million pronghorns, ten million elk, ten million mule deer, and as many as two million mountain sheep. Sixty million bison! The imagination shrinks from imagining it. Bison can run for hours at thirty miles per hour and use their massive, horned skulls like battering rams. Mature animals weigh up to a ton. Sixty million of them would have been more than sixty billion pounds of grouchy, fast-moving mammal pounding the plains.
Seton made his estimate in 1929, and it is still widely quoted today. Ecologists have since employed more sophisticated theoretical tools to produce new, lower population estimates; ethologist Dale Lott put the number of bison in “primitive America” at twenty-four to twenty-seven million in 2002. Nonetheless, most continue to accept Seton’s basic thesis: the Americas seen by the first colonists were a wildland of thundering herds and forests with sky-high trees and lakes aswarm with fish. Increasingly, though, archaeologists demand a caveat. The Americas seen by the first colonistswere teeming with game, they say. But the continents had not been that way for long. Indeed, this Edenic world was largely an inadvertent European creation.
At the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush. Agriculture occurred in as much as two-thirds of what is now the continental United States, with large swathes of the Southwest terraced and irrigated. Among the maize fields in the Midwest and Southeast, mounds by the thousand stippled the land. The forests of the eastern seaboard had been peeled back from the coasts, which were now lined with farms. Salmon nets stretched across almost every ocean-bound stream in the Northwest. And almost everywhere there was Indian fire.
The Indian impact on American ecosystems was transformative, subtle, and persistent, as suggested by these photographs of remnant Native American maize hills in the outskirts of Northampton, Massachusetts, in the 1920 s. Maize had not grown in these abandoned pastures for centuries, but the handiwork of the land’s original inhabitants remained for those with eyes to see it.
Agricultural terraces like these in Peru’s Colca Valley still cover thousands of square miles in Mesoamerica and the Andes, mute testimony to Native Americans’ enduring success in managing their landscapes.
This grand Indian irrigation system near Pisco, a coastal town south of Lima, fell to developers’ bulldozers—the photograph dates from 1931.
South of the Río Grande, Indians had converted the Mexican basin and Yucatán into artificial environments suitable for farming. Terraces and canals and stony highways lined the western face of the Andes. Raised fields and causeways covered the Beni. Agriculture reached down into Argentina and central Chile. Indians had converted perhaps a quarter of the vast Amazon forest into farms and agricultural forests and the once-forested Andes to grass and brush (the Inka, worried about fuel supply, were planting tree farms).
All of this had implications for animal populations. As Cahokia grew, Woods told me, so did its maize fields. For obvious reasons its farmers did not relish the prospect of buffalo herds trampling through their fields. Nor did they want deer, moose, or passenger pigeons eating the maize. They hunted them until they were scarce around their homes. At the same time, they tried to encourage these species to grow in number farther away, where they would be useful. “The net result was to keep that kind of animal at arm’s length,” Woods told me. “The total number of bison, say, seems to have gone down quite a bit, but they wanted to have them available for hunting in the prairie a couple days’ journey away.”
When disease swept Indians from the land, this entire ecological ancien régime collapsed. Hernando De Soto’s expedition staggered through the Southeast for four years in the early sixteenth century and saw hordes of people but apparently didn’t see a single bison. (No account describes them, and it seems unlikely that chroniclers would have failed to mention sighting such an extraordinary beast.) More than a century later the French explorer La Salle canoed down the Mississippi. Where De Soto had found prosperous cities La Salle encountered “a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man,” wrote the nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman. Everywhere the French encountered bison, “grazing in herds on the great prairies which then bordered the river.” When Indians died, the shaggy creatures vastly extended both their range and numbers, according to Valerius Geist, a bison researcher at the University of Calgary. “The post-Columbian abundance of bison,” in his view, was largely due to “Eurasian diseases that decreased [Indian] hunting.” The massive, thundering herds were pathological, something that the land had not seen before and was unlikely to see again.
The same may have held true for many other species. “If elk were here in great numbers all this time, the [archaeological] sites should be chock-full of elk bones,” Charles Kay, a wildlife ecologist at Utah State, told me. “But the archaeologists will tell you the elk weren’t there.” In middens around Yellowstone National Park, he said, they first show up in large numbers about five hundred years ago, the time of the great epidemics. Until European contact the warm coastline of California was heavily populated, according to William S. Preston, a geographer at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo. After Columbus everything changed. The Indian population collapsed. Clams and mussels exploded in number; they also grew larger. Game overran the land. Sir Francis Drake sailed into San Francisco’s harbor in 1579 and saw a land of plenty. “Infinite was the company of very large and fate Deere,” he announced. How could he have known that just a century before the shoreline had been thickly settled and the deer much more scarce?
HUMANIZED LANDSCAPES, 1491 A.D.
Complex as it is, this map of Indian effects on the environment is incomplete; no single map could possibly do justice to the subject. The most important omission is fire. I have highlighted some areas where fires deliberately set by Indians effectively controlled the landscape, but this practice played an important ecological role throughout the hemisphere as well, except in wettest Amazonia and northeastern North America. Similarly, scattered clearing, burning, and earth movement for drainage occurred in all agricultural areas—the map indicates only where these factors were especially concentrated. (My depiction of fire-dominated regions in the southern Amazonian highlands is highly speculative, unlike the rest of this map. Researchers have not established where such burning occurred—only where it seems likely.)
Not all of these claims have been endorsed enthusiastically. Kay’s work on elk has drawn especially heavy fire. Elk are big and Indians may have butchered them where they fell, meaning that few elk carcasses would appear in middens. Nonetheless, ecologists and archaeologists increasingly agree that the destruction of Native Americans also destroyed the ecosystems they managed. Throughout the eastern forest the open, park-like landscapes observed by the first Europeans quickly filled in. Because they did not burn the land with the same skill and frequency as its previous occupants, the forests grew thicker. Left untended, maize fields filled in with weeds, then bushes and trees. My ancestor Billington’s great-grandchildren may not have realized it, but the impenetrable sweep of dark forest admired by Thoreau was something that Billington never saw. Later, of course, Europeans stripped New England almost bare of trees.
When the newcomers moved west, they were preceded by a wave of disease and then a wave of ecological disturbance. The former crested with fearsome rapidity; the latter sometimes took more than a century to tamp down, and it was followed by many aftershocks. “The virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” wrote historian Stephen Pyne, “it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.” Far from destroying pristine wilderness, that is, Europeans bloodily created it.
By 1800 the hemisphere was thick with artificial wilderness. If “forest primeval” means woodland unsullied by the human presence, Denevan has written, there was much more of it in the nineteenth century than in the seventeenth.
The product of demographic calamity, the newly created wilderness was indeed beautiful. But it was built on Indian graves and every bit as much a ruin as the temples of the Maya.