The wanderer

I’d stopped at this rest area on I-94 just south of Black River Falls, Wisconsin dozens of times, but I’d never taken the time to read the historical marker that was there, and it completely changed my understanding of the place.

Here’s a condensed version of the sign’s text:

“Huge flocks of passenger pigeons once roamed North America. The passenger pigeon derived its name from an Indian word meaning ‘wanderer’ or one who moves from place to place.

The largest nesting on record anywhere occurred in this area in 1871. The nesting area covered 850 square miles with an estimated 136,000,000 pigeons. John Muir described the passenger pigeons in flight, ‘I have seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long.’

The last known passenger pigeon died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914.”

Her name was Martha, the very last passenger pigeon. Usually we don’t know the exact day that a species becomes extinct, but in this case we watched it happen, powerless to change what we ourselves had set in motion.

When Martha died 100 years ago, she had never lived in the wild.

The others like her were once one of the most plentiful bird species on the planet, with estimates of 3-5 billion passenger pigeons in today’s United States when Europeans first arrived.

We ate them…we shot them for sport…and we never imagined that they would ever be gone.

Reading the sign, it was hard to imagine them ever being here.


** In an odd twist of fate (or coincidence if you believe in that sort of thing) my good friend and journalist Barry Yeoman just published a story in the latest issue of Audubon magazine about the end of the passenger pigeons, and an effort to “un-extinct” them. You can read the article at this link:

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