This is a story of the rapid and brutal extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, once so abundant that they ‘blotted out the sky’, until the last bird died on 1st September 1914. It is also an evocative story of wild America.Read more
The centenary year of the Great War also marks the death of a bird in Cincinnati Zoo. Named in honour of George Washington’s wife, the 29-year-old “Martha” was the last passenger pigeon in existence. Once there had been between five and 10 billion of them, but when their habitat – the forests – were cut down, causing them to graze on crops, farmers opened fire and then professional hunters took over. Slaughter followed. Belfast academic and writer John Wilson Foster’s masterful narrative is both cautionary tale and superb history writing. It is also an astute lament for the loss of an older, more noble America and, with it, a creature of great beauty.
Eileen Battersby’s non fiction books of the year 2014
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
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
"I've just read this and greatly admired and enjoyed it. Wonderfully well written and constructed, and with some completely astounding detail magisterially marshalled into a containing, ramifying (and terrible) narrative. I got interested in the [Passenger Pigeon] some years ago when my friend Mark Ford told me he thought the pigeons at the end of Stevens's 'Sunday Morning' might be them; and he wrote this up eventually in the LRB. Your book is now the ideal place for anyone to find out about them.