I am reading the The First Frontier by Scott Weidensaul, prolific nature writer and eminent ornithologist. A synopsis of the book reads: “Frontier: the word carries the inevitable scent of the West. But before Lewis and Clark, … it was the East that marked the frontier—the boundary between Native cultures and the first colonizing Europeans- an older, wilder time ….”
What fascinates me about this book is its descriptions of North American wildlife thousands of years ago, including interesting creatures such as mastodons, giant sloths, and sabre-toothed tigers. (More on the history of wildlife in North America here.) At a time before there were many Europeans, salmon clogged rivers and codfish populations were described as dense enough to walk upon. One single population of Passenger Pigeons was estimated to contain 2.2 billion birds, constituting 25 to 40 per cent of the total bird population of the United States. When the flock flew overhead, the sky was darkened for hours as it passed. The last Passenger Pigeon died in 1917.
Thousands of years ago, California Condors inhabited North America from California to British Columbia to Baja California to Texas, Florida, and New York. As people settled the continent, they shot, poisoned, and captured condors, collected their eggs, and reduced their food supply of antelope, elk, and other large animals. By the late 1900s the remaining condors were limited to the mountainous parts of southern California, where they fed on dead cattle, sheep, and deer. Today they number around 500, captive and wild.
Lewis and Clark observed large concentrations of birds. “I slept but very little last night for the noise kept up during the whole of the night by swans, geese, white and gray brant, ducks, etc., on small sand island close under the port side; they were immensely numerous, and their noise horrid.” —William Clark, 1805. What Clark saw is the fall flight of waterfowl heading south for the winter. Some estimates have the total fall flight at that time numbering 430 million birds; today, in a good reproductive year, it might be 100 million.
In the 1800’s and early 1900s, waterfowl were so abundant in the Chesapeake Bay that hunters used skiff boats, called punts, and very large 2” bore shotguns called “punt guns” to hunt ducks and geese, bagging thousands in a day. The guns were banned in 1860 because the waterfowl populations were declining. James Michener’s book Chesapeake relates this story in detail.
In the mid-1800’s, huge flocks of Eskimo Curlew migrated from South America to their nesting grounds in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic. Historic reports tell of the skies being full of Eskimo Curlews migrating through the prairie states and provinces. One observation describes a single flock feeding in Nebraska that covered 40 to 50 acres of ground. Between 1870 and 1890, unrestricted hunting rapidly reduced populations of Eskimo Curlew. Considered very good to eat, the birds were killed by thousands of market hunters. They have not been seen for 55 years.
In my life, I have personally experienced the decline in bird populations – once commonly sighted birds are now rare, even the once ubiquitous House Sparrow whose populations have declined 84 percent since 1966. I can’t imagine what it would be like for flocks of birds to darken the sky.