John Wilson Foster

John Wilson Foster was born and educated in Belfast. He won a scholarship to Queen’s University where he read social anthropology, zoology, English and philosophy. As a postgraduate he studied aesthetics under the philosopher W.B. Gallie and the poet and critic Philip Hobsbaum. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Oregon where he completed a Ph.D. in Irish literature. From 1974 until 2002 he was Professor of English at the University of British Columbia of which he is now professor emeritus. In 2001 he was National University of Ireland Professor at NUI, Maynooth. After early retirement he was a Leverhulme visiting professor to the U.K., visiting professor at the University of Toronto, and visiting fellow at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

FOSTER’S PIGEONS – Review by Michael Longley CBE – Poet

To early settlers the New World must have seemed like Eden in its plenitude – salmon-crowded rivers, cod-packed seas – and flocks of passenger pigeons in such incredible multitudes they eclipsed the sun and the moon. The pigeons which used to migrate in ribbon flocks of millions are now extinct. What caused this disastrous collapse? In his brilliant book John Wilson Foster tells us what happened. We view the pigeons through the lenses of folklore, religion and ancient natural history, and then more scientifically. ‘All science begins with marvelling,’ as Aristotle suggested, and every page of this book is lit by a sense of wonder. Foster combines the attentiveness of a field-naturalist, the observation and reason of a scientist, a scholar’s method and a poet’s imagination. Full of amazement and sorrow, Pilgrims of the Air is a book of utmost distinction by one of our finest public intellectuals.


“Just to say thanks for Pilgrims of the Air which arrived this morning.  What a beautifully produced volume.  How nice to see a publisher crafting something of this quality.  At the – important – level of book-as-object Notting Hill Editions has given readers something that’s deeply appealing to the eye and hand.  I’m looking forward to reading it.”

“John Wilson Foster’s  new book is a gem in every sense: small but perfect in the hand, elegantly written and full of evocative, deeply researched interest, both in the bird and American social history. Roaming in millions across the virgin forests of North America, sometimes blotting out the sky, the passenger pigeon belonged to a land – and its rivers and ocean – of an early and now seemingly incredible wild abundance, fatally eroded by servicing the spread of humankind.” Michael Viney – Irish Times

“I have to start with “Pilgrims”.  I opened it in the midst of pandemonium ……. couldn’t put it down until I’d finished chapter two.  The title, quote on the cover, format, binding, paper, size, look and feel, and photographs were all simply outstanding choices. The significant research and attention to detail regarding the facts were obvious yet woven into a story that is vibrant, rich and fascinating for the bird and the times.  I must remark too on the turn of phrase, which was a feast for a simple mind: “to see it in one place was no guarantee of seeing it again in the same place:  the bird moved through space and time on some improvised itinerary perhaps unknown even to itself”,   “…the bird-protection movement was gaining purchase on the American conscience…”, and “Amidst the exertions and tribulations of exploration the hardships and excitements of colonial life it was paid comparatively little close heed.” The quote on the cover is brilliant.”

In his Pilgrims of the Air, Foster, a literary critic, writer, and birder, has produced one of the loveliest of literary meditations on the pigeon and its fate…
In fluid, pleasing prose, Foster traces the commodification of wildlife in North America from the sixteenth century to the closing of the frontier and the extinction or near-extinction of such emblematic American creatures as the pigeon and the bison. The author ranges widely, impressively, across the earliest literature of exploration and conquest, smoothly integrating sources that a lesser writer might have been tempted to relegate to a chronological appendix.
Rick Wright – Book Review Editor at Birding.