Ryerson Reads celebrates 10 years

Ryerson Reads 1491

New season starts September 10

For 10 years, book lovers with an interest in ecology have enjoyed lively discourse at a unique book club held at Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods. The 11th season starts this fall.

Longtime participant Dick Ettlinger of Highland Park said the leader Ben Goluboff guides the group in a thought-provoking way that stimulates fascinating discussions. Goluboff is a professor of English at Lake Forest College.

“He asks questions and invites responses,” Ettlinger said. “He gets the discussion going. He doesn’t want to make a lecture out of it.”

Goluboff said that’s his intent: To invite comments and encourage readers to delve into issues and themselves.

“I really try to make it a dialogue, like a good literature class,” he said.

One of Goluboff’s selections this season is Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison.

Ben Goluboff - Ryerson Reads
Ben Goluboff, a professor of English at Lake Forest College, leads the Ryerson Reads book discussions.

“This is a powerful book, a delightful, challenging wonderful book, “Goluboff said. Participants will likely discuss whether the author is truly talking about gardens or something else, he said.

Over the years, Goluboff has been fascinated and excited about what participants say and observe about themselves and the environment.

“One book, The Creation by E.O. Wilson, elicited a wide-ranging discussion,” he said. “One participant talked about how Wilson’s writing caused her to re-examine her faith,” he said.

“I thought that was extraordinary. It makes people around the table recognize the power of the writer. It’s been one of the many experiences in my life that reminds me how literature can make a big difference in peoples’ lives.”

Brushwood Center Executive Director Sophie Twichell said, “We are thrilled Ryerson Reads has thrived for 10 years. This is a truly wonderful way to discuss literature in a beautiful setting with a thoughtful, knowledgeable and well-read leader.”

Copies of the books chosen for the 2014/15 season of Ryerson Reads will be set aside and available at the Deerfield Public Library, 920 Waukegan Road as well as the Vernon Area Public Library, 300 Olde Half Day Road, Lincolnshire. Books are also available for purchase at the Lake Forest Book Store. Limited copies are on hand at Brushwood Center. The fee is $15 per session, $10 for Brushwood Center members. The entire series is $45 or $30 for members. Discussions are held from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. on the dates below.

Ryerson_Reads_Fall_2014_final_frontSept. 10, 2014:            When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle
Nov. 12, 2014:             The Paradise of Bombs by Scott Russell Sanders
Jan. 14, 2015:              The Last Animal by Abby Geni
Mar. 11, 2015:             Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert                                                                Pogue Harrison

To register for Ryerson Reads or for more information, call 847.968.3308 or visit http://www.brushwoodcenter.org/Programs/Discovery/RyersonReads.html.

Brushwood Center is located at: 21850 N. Riverwoods Rd., Riverwoods, IL 60015.  www.brushwoodcenter.org.

 

Ryerson Reads is partially sponsored by a grant from:

Rosborough

 

 

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

"Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing" by William Blake.  c.1786.  Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream.
“Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing” by William Blake. c.1786. Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Midsummer_Night’s_Dream.

 

Shakespeare comes to Brushwood Center:

A performance in the woods with Citadel Theatre

Shakespeare aficionados and neophytes alike can relax among the lush vegetation and sound of crickets at Ryerson Woods on August 1, 2 and 3 when Citadel Theatre performs “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” outdoors.

“The hour-long performance is perfect for those who already know and love Shakespeare as well as those who want to enjoy theater in a beautiful setting,” said Heather Meyers, the show’s production manager. “It’s a great introduction to Shakespeare, and we’re making it accessible to a modern audience.”

All the audience needs is a blanket or lawn chair, and a picnic if they like, as they watch a fully costumed production of Shakespeare’s bewitching tale of fairies, enchanted forests, and of course, lost lovers.

“The show has a little bit of everything: comedy, love and romance, mistaken identity, chase scenes, the magic of the fairies. It will be fun to watch,” said Meyers.

Sophie Twichell, Executive Director of Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods, said she encourages families to attend. “Because it’s only an hour long, and because of all the fun characters in the play, it is a wonderful introduction to magic of theater,” said Twichell. “Attendees will revel in the outdoor experience, which ends just before sunset.”

Brushwood Center, along with the Lake County Forest Preserves, is partnering with Citadel Theatre (based in Lake Forest) for the first time to present outdoor theater at Ryerson Woods.

“This is our first outdoor Shakespeare theater ever, and we’re happy to be doing it at Ryerson Woods,” Meyers said. Meyers said the actors are being directed by one of the best: Frank Farrell, a Chicago director and actor.

“Bringing Shakespeare to Brushwood Center furthers our mission of nurturing art, nature and discovery,” Twichell said. “We are thrilled to be partnering with a theater company based right here in Lake County.”

Tickets are available for three shows beginning at 6:30 p.m., August 1, 2 and 3. Pre-registration is recommended. Registration deadline is July 31. In the case of inclement weather, the production will be held indoors, with limited seating available.

For more information and to obtain tickets, call 847.968.3321 or visit www.brushwoodcenter.org. Brushwood Center is located at: 21850 N. Riverwoods Rd., Riverwoods, IL 60015.

 

About Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods

Through innovative arts programs presented against a backdrop of stately woods where pre-settlement flora and fauna still linger, Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods seeks to build an environmental ethic in our region by offering multiple points of entry for the public to connect with nature. Brushwood Center is a nonprofit organization.

Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot

Ginkgo biloba in autumn
Ginkgo biloba in autumn

by Sophie Twichell, executive director of Friends of Ryerson Woods

When you think of Ginkgo, what comes to mind?  Do you have memories that involve Ginkgo?  Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) has been used in traditional medicine to treat blood disorders and to enhance memory. For some reason, I can never remember if it is Ginkgo or St. John’s Wort that one should take for memory . . . clearly a sign that it’s time for me to add Ginkgo to my daily vitamin regimen!

Medion   DIGITAL CAMERA
Characteristic shape of the Ginkgo leaf.

I do have memories that revolve around Ginkgo.  I remember as a young girl when my parents planted a Ginkgo tree on the south side of my childhood home.  That was my first introduction to this unique tree.  It made an impression due to its unusual leaf shape but even more so due to my parents’ excitement. We watched it grow for many years.  Even though they moved out of that house 25 years ago, my mother still thinks about that tree: “Remember the Ginkgo tree we planted on Ridge Road? I loved that tree.”

Ginkgos are dioecious, with separate sexes, some trees being female and others being male. Females produce seeds with a fleshy outer layer, which contains butyric acid and smells like rancid butter or vomit.
Ginkgos are dioecious, with separate sexes, some trees being female and others being male. Females produce seeds with a fleshy outer layer, which contains butyric acid and smells like rancid butter or vomit.

My second memory is not as rosy.  Each fall during college in Philadephia in the late 1980s, I had to change my regular route to class due to a pesky Ginkgo tree. A female tree dropped a mass of seeds on the sidewalk, which created a sticky, slimy, smelly mess.  Apparently, the fleshy coating of the seeds contains butyric acid, which is also found in rancid butter. Yuck!

Before I knew to avoid this block in spring, I did walk through this mess on the sidewalk and didn’t think much of it.  Later in class, I became extremely self-conscious as I realized that the smell of vomit permeating the classroom was emanating from me — the soles of my shoes reeked!  I must admit, this marred my appreciation for the Ginkgo for a number of years.  Getting that smelly slime off my shoes was nasty. Clearly, the elegant tree I’d grown up with was a well-mannered male.

Because they tolerate pollution, resist pests and disease, and don’t mind confined spaces, Ginkgos are widely planted in urban environments as street shade trees.
Because they tolerate pollution and confined spaces, as well as resist pests and disease, Ginkgos are widely planted in urban environments as street trees.

Despite the practical challenges the female Ginkgo may pose, one can’t deny that this is a most intriguing tree. Native to Asia, it is incredibly resilient.  Many cities plant the hardy Ginkgo because of its ability to survive the trials of road salt, pests and smog.  It is a popular shade tree along city streets. Believe it or not, six Ginkgo trees survived the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Situated near the blast center, they budded after the blast without major deformities and are still alive today. Wow.  As a result, some regard Ginkgo as the “bearer of hope.”

Because we like to explore the intersection of art and nature at Ryerson Woods, I wanted to share a poem by the German poet, scientist, botanist and
philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on the subject of the Ginkgo. It was first published in 1819.

Gingo Biloba

This leaf from a tree in the East,

Has been given to my garden.

Goethe sent Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) a Ginkgo leaf as a symbol of friendship. He took the two leaves pasted onto the poem from the Ginkgo tree in the garden of Heidelberg Castle which he had visited with her.
Goethe sent Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) a Ginkgo leaf as a symbol of friendship. He took the two leaves pasted onto the poem from the Ginkgo tree in the garden of Heidelberg Castle which he had visited with her.

It reveals a certain secret,

Which pleases me and thoughtful people.

Is it a living being,

Which has separated in itself?

Or are these two, who chose

To be recognized as one?

Answering this kind of question,

Haven’t I found the proper meaning,

Don’t you feel in my songs,

That I’m one and double?

At Friends of Ryerson Woods, we seek to bring the residents of Chicagoland’s North Shore the highest quality nature programming. As such, we are delighted to offer a public program on “Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot” by Sir Peter Crane, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Peter Crane headshot-smallSir Peter is the Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental   Studies at Yale University. His work focuses on the diversity of plant life: its origin and fossil history, current status, and conservation and use. His latest book, A Biography of Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot, was released in March 2013. Sir Peter has been the John and Marion Sullivan University professor at the University of Chicago, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and director of the Field Museum in Chicago with overall responsibility for the museum’s scientific programs.  Sir Peter was knighted in the United Kingdom in 2004 for services to horticulture and  conservation.  Sir Peter knows so much about Ginkgo, an extinct species of Ginkgo is named after him.  Ginkgo cranei was discovered from fossils found in North Dakota.

GINKGO: A FEW FASCINATING FACTS

Here are some facts about Ginkgo that Sir Peter shared with us in anticipation of his talk.

1. Ginkgo is a botanical oddity. Like the platypus among animals, it is a single peculiar species with no close living relatives.

The iconic fan-shaped leaves of ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.
The iconic fan-shaped leaves of Ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living Ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.

2. The iconic fan-shaped leaves of ginkgo have been identified as fossils from every continent. Living ginkgo trees have changed little from those that lived 200 million years ago.

3. Almost driven to extinction by climate change, wild ginkgo trees survive only in China. But you can see ginkgo today in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, on the streets of Manhattan, and in parks and gardens in all but the warmest and coldest places on our planet.

4. In the East, Ginkgo has been cultivated for a thousand years for its edible seeds, and many ancient trees are greatly revered by followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism.

5. The oldest living ginkgo trees in Europe date from 1730–1750, when ginkgo was introduced from the East. The oldest ginkgo in North America was planted in the 1780s in the Pennsylvania garden of John Bartram, a prominent early American botanist.

6. Today ginkgo is grown as a botanical curiosity and a resilient street tree; extracts from ginkgo leaves have also become a top-selling herbal medicine that is believed to improve memory and learning. Its efficacy, however, remains controversial.

After all this contemplation of the Ginkgo tree, I think it is time for me to plant a Ginkgo tree at my own house so I can pass on the appreciation of this distinctive tree to my children.  A male tree, that is!

I hope you’ll join us on Thursday evening, June 6 at 7pm at the Welcome Center at Ryerson Woods, to learn about the mysteries of Ginkgo tree from one of the world’s most brilliant botanists.  Thanks to our friends at Lake Forest Book Store, we’ll have copies of Ginkgo available for sale and signing. I can’t wait to learn more fascinating facts about Ginkgo.  I look forward to seeing you there.

DETAILS

Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot
with Sir Peter Crane, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Welcome Center, 7:00 p.m.
Ryerson Woods
21950 N. Riverwoods Rd.
Deerfield, IL 60015
Cost: $20 (or $10 for FRW members)
Register:  here or call 847.968.3321 for member discount

Ginkgo coverABOUT THE BOOK (from Yale University Press)

Perhaps the world’s most distinctive tree, ginkgo has remained stubbornly unchanged for more than two hundred million years. A living link to the age of dinosaurs, it survived the great ice ages as a relic in China, but it earned its reprieve when people first found it useful about a thousand years ago. Today ginkgo is beloved for the elegance of its leaves, prized for its edible nuts, and revered for its longevity. This engaging book tells the full and fascinating story of a tree that people saved from extinction – a story that offers hope for other botanical biographies that are still being written. Inspired by the historic ginkgo that has thrived in London’s Kew Gardens since the 1760s, renowned botanist Peter Crane explores the evolutionary history of the species from its mysterious origin through its proliferation, drastic decline, and ultimate resurgence. Crane also highlights the cultural and social significance of the ginkgo: its medicinal and nutritional uses, its power as a source of artistic and religious inspiration, and its importance as one of the world’s most popular street trees. Readers of this extraordinarily interesting book will be drawn to the nearest ginkgo, where they can experience firsthand the timeless beauty of the oldest tree on Earth.

REVIEWS

Ginkgo takes a place among the best books on plants that I have had the pleasure of reading. It provides an extremely interesting account of a remarkable plant through space, time, and culture.”—Peter H. Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden
 
“Peter Crane provides a compelling and definitive portrait of the Tree That Time Forgot: its ancient lineage, its natural history, and history interwoven with people….an eye-opening page turner about the Ginkgo in particular and trees in general. A triumph of beautifully written scholarship.”—Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University
 
“The Ginkgo is the elder statesman of the plant world, and Peter Crane’s erudite and fascinating biography is as absorbing as any account of the life of a Churchill or a Lincoln.”—Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor, The Independent, London
All Ginkgo images derived from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Dr. Crane and book cover from Yale University Press.

Magical Evening at Ryerson Woods

photo (2)
Model Allison Saum wears an original dress designed by Friends of Ryerson Woods Administrative Coordinator Julia Kemerer.
(Photo credit: Adriana McClintock)

Ryerson Woods is a magical, natural wonderland in the spring – full of native flowers covering the forest bed, trees as far as the eye can see and a host of beautiful creatures living inside. This past Saturday at the 30th annual Smith Nature Symposium, a new and delightful figure appeared in the woods. “Bird Girl” welcomed guests to the symposium in a dress made of moss, hand-painted birds, butterflies and flowers.

Celebrating 30 years is a special occasion and we knew we needed something equally special to dazzle our guests. I thought about a garden dress I came across some time ago. Cascading rows of planters made up an elaborate and dramatic piece of art and nature, the very intersection we cross with our mission at Friends. Many of the events I have done in the past have had a performance artist or some artistic feature to wow guests so I approached our group to see if we could do something similar.

With a passion for design, the project sparked the interest of Friends of Ryerson Woods administrative coordinator and multi-media artist Julia Kemerer. She quickly came up with a concept and got to work.

The hardest part was manipulating chicken wire to form the lower half of the dress and covering it with natural materials, such as Spanish moss, green mountain moss and Black Lichen. Poor Julia was covered in cuts and scratches, as well as the materials and glue. It was a labor of love, though, because it ignited her creative spirit and she was able to focus her energy into a project close to her heart.

Guests were tickled to see the finished product and enjoyed taking pictures with “Bird Girl” throughout the night. Her hat, adorned in hand-painted eggs atop a gorgeous nest, balanced delicately on her head as she made her way through the party interacting with guests. She then rallied the crowd to raise their paddles for fundraising.

photo (1)
Photo Credit: Adriana McClintock

It was an incredible evening, made possible by so many great moments and helping hands. Kenn Kaufman delivered an informative and funny keynote address. Sophie Twichell, executive director at Friends, lovingly honored longtime friend and former colleague Doug Stotz, the 2013 conservation award winner. Last, and certainly not least, the Lake County Forest Preserve District worked tirelessly to take care of setting up, providing staff and volunteers, chauffeuring guests to the front door and so much more. We couldn’t do it without you!

Thank you to all involved to help make this a memorable year!

Adriana McClintock
Director of Development and Communications

Coyotes in the Neighborhood

coyote_final_sm
Coyote illustration by Gretchen Baker.

Friends of Ryerson Woods hosted a panel discussion on “The Hidden World of Wolves and Coyotes” in November 2012.  Afterwards, our executive director, Sophie Twichell, was invited to write an article on misconceptions about coyotes for the Lake Bluff Open Lands Association’s newsletter. We thought our readers might be interested in this information as well.  Let us know if you learned something new after reading the article. Enjoy! 

by Sophie Twichell

Do you hear coyotes howling at night? See them trotting down the sidewalk or crossing streets? Without a doubt, coyotes are active members of our North Shore communities.  But, how much do we really understand this medium-sized member of the dog family (along with wolves and foxes)?  Coyotes are often misunderstood, as well as underappreciated for the valuable role they are playing.  Learning more about these elusive creatures is the best way for us to live harmoniously with coyotes.

Coyotes, Canis latrans, are native to North America and currently occur throughout most of the continent. Their historical range prior to 1700 was restricted to the prairies and desert areas of Mexico and central North America. But over the past few centuries, coyotes have dramatically expanded their range across North America and now are found in an increasing number of cities in the United States and Canada. In addition to occurring in natural areas, coyotes are also found in a range of human-populated areas, including rural farms, suburbs and cities.

Stan Gehrt, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University, has been leading a team of researchers studying urban coyotes in the Chicago metropolitan region since 2000.  Gehrt’s team has caught and marked 661 coyotes, including radio collaring 379.  He recently shared fascinating facts about coyotes with 200 curious community members at the Greenbelt Cultural Center in North Chicago at an event sponsored by Friends of Ryerson Woods and Conserve Lake County.

Stan Gehrt has been studying urban coyotes in Chicago since 2000. Photo courtesy of S. Gehrt.

Here is a sampling of what Gehrt’s team has discovered about coyotes on our region:

–          Most adults weigh between 25-35 lbs. A few big ones weigh in the 42-43 lbs. range. There are no 50 lb. coyotes.

–          They have individual personalities. Some are shy, others aggressive. Some howl often, others hardly at all.  Individual variation is tremendous.

–          Packs are made of family members and are very territorial.

–          Howling is a way to bring family members together, as well as to establish territory; it is not a sign of aggression or hunting.

–          Coyotes are monogamous for life; pairs only split upon the death of a mate.

–          The average litter size is 4-7 pups, although can range from 3-15.

–          Male coyotes help raise the young just as much as females.

–          February is the peak of mating season for coyotes; litters are born in April.

–          During mating and gestation is the only time coyotes will voluntarily use a den (a burrow in the ground or hollowed out tree); otherwise, coyotes usually sleep above ground in the open or in cover.

–          In captivity, coyotes can live 13 to 15 years, but in the wild, most die before they reach three years of age. Gehrt’s study found that coyotes generally have a 60 percent chance of surviving one year.

–          Coyotes inhabit virtually every green space of any significant size throughout the Chicago metropolitan region; if they are removed, new ones will move right in.

–          Coyotes in the Chicago metropolitan area confine most of their activity to nocturnal hours, whereas in natural areas, coyotes tend to be diurnal (active during the day) or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). This reduces the likelihood of interacting with humans.

–          Coyotes are incredibly adaptable. Gehrt showed video of coyotes crossing city streets and even interstates safely, apparently looking both ways before crossing the street and following green lights.

Over 200 people came out to the Greenbelt Cultural Center in November 2012 to learn more about coyotes. Photo courtesy of Conserve Lake County.
Over 200 people joined us at the Greenbelt Cultural Center in November 2012 to learn more about coyotes. Photo courtesy of Conserve Lake County.

Much controversy revolves around what coyotes eat.  Gehrt’s study has provided fascinating information, including some unexpected results.  A study of coyote scat (poop) revealed that the most common food items are small rodents (42 percent), fruit (23 percent), deer (22 percent), and rabbit (18 percent). They also will eat birds, frogs, skunks, insects and the occasional beaver or muskrat. Apparently the majority of coyotes in the region do not, in fact, rely on our pets (1%) or garbage (2%) for their diets.  (Scats often have more than one diet item; therefore, frequencies do not necessarily add up to 100 percent). As coyotes need to eat about 10% of their body weight each day, this preference for rodents can result in a diet of 3,000 rodents per year!  Further, coyotes serve as the primary predators on fawns. One surprising find was that coyotes control Canada Geese populations by eating the eggs. Geese parents can fight off raccoons but not coyotes. 97% of goose nest predation is carried out by coyotes. Geese and deer are often overabundant and difficult to manage. Thus, coyotes play a key role in naturally controlling rodent, deer and geese populations.

But, what about our pets? There are a few things to consider. It is natural canid (dog family) behavior to kill smaller canids. This is about instinct and survival. Given the opportunity, wolves will kill coyotes, coyotes will kill fox, and so on. This is less about getting a meal, but instead about eliminating competition. So, you want to keep an eye on your small dogs. Coyotes also may kill domestic cats for food or again to eliminate competition, but Gehrt’s study reveals that cats make up a very small part of their diet. Also, other predators eat cats, including Great Horned Owls. If coyotes live nearby, do not let pets run loose, especially domestic cats. When hiking in preserves, keep dogs on leashes.

Attendees enjoyed viewing the mounted coyotes, pelts and information provided by the Wildlife Discovery Center and the Lake County Forest Preserves.
Attendees enjoyed viewing the mounted coyotes, pelts and information provided by the Wildlife Discovery Center and the Lake County Forest Preserves.

In general, coyotes will avoid humans. Considering how many live around us and how few incidents we actually have with coyotes, it is clear they are staying out of our way. But, there are many ways we can minimize the possibility of conflicts with coyotes.  Most important is not to feed them. Many people unintentionally feed coyotes by leaving pet food or garbage out at night or by having large bird feeders. Coyotes are generally not interested in bird food, but bird feeders often attract rodents, especially squirrels, which then attract coyotes. Although coyotes seem to have a natural inclination to avoid human-related food, this can change when prey populations are low, or if the coyotes are young and haven’t yet learned to hunt effectively. If you encounter one or more coyotes on a trail, do not run away. It is part of canid (dog family) instinct to chase something that flees. That is how they chase down prey. Instead, you should make a lot of noise, as well as throw something at them.“Coyotes in the Chicago area are successful in spite of us, not because of us,” Gehrt contends. “They eat their own food, not ours.  They hunt as if we weren’t even here. They do their best to avoid us.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

coyote mount
A close up of the Wildlife Discovery Center’s mounted coyote.

FIVE EASY STEPS TO AVOID CONFLICTS WITH COYOTES

Conflicts with coyotes can be avoided by taking simple precautions or by altering behaviors to avoid confrontation:

1. Do not feed the coyotes.

2. Do not let pets run loose.

3. Do not run from a coyote.

4. Repellents or fencing may help.

5. Report aggressive, fearless coyotes immediately.

To learn more about the Cook County Coyote Project, visit www.urbancoyoteresearch.com.

1491 and Passenger Pigeons

IJoel Greenberg at Markham Prairien late August, FRW executive director Sophie Twichell hiked in the gorgeous Gensburg-Markham Prairie in Markham, Illinois with author and historian Joel Greenberg.  In honor of FRW’s programming theme, LESSONS FROM THE PRAIRIE, they discussed future programming ideas for Friends of Ryerson Woods.  While talking about the upcoming book selections for the Ryerson Reads book discussion series, Joel expressed some strong feelings about Charles C. Mann’s treatment of the passenger pigeon in his celebrated book 1491.  Sophie invited Joel to submit a blog entry about it, and here it is. Enjoy!

by Joel Greenberg, Research Associate, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Field Museum

After being immersed in the literature of the passenger pigeon for going on three years now, I want to address a canard that was fueled by its inclusion in 1491.  Although fossil remains have been found as far west as California, it would seem that the principal range of the passenger pigeon was a large region of eastern Canada and the United States, bounded on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, the west by the headwaters of the Missouri River, the north almost to Hudson’s Bay, and as far south as the gulf states. The bird’s foremost scholar placed its population in 1500 as some where between 3 and 5 billion. The birds aggregated in flocks that would darken the sky for many hours at a time: when in Kentucky, Audubon noted a three day period when the masses of birds blocked the sun for the entire duration. As late as 1860, a single flight near Toronto likely exceeded a billion birds and maybe three billion. But due to unrelenting exploitation by humans for food and sport, they were virtually gone from the wild by 1900 and the last individual died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

A paper in 1985 by archeologist Thomas Neumann claimed that the absence of passenger pigeon remains in archeological digs demonstrates that the species existed in small numbers during prehistoric times due to predation and competition for food by Native Americans. It was only after Indian populations plummeted due to the diseases brought by Europeans were passenger pigeons able to attain historical abundance. This increase in pigeons was further helped by the reduction of deer, turkey, and other non-human competitors due to the appetites of the new arrivals.

Unfortunately this assertion was stated as fact by Mann in 1491 and the popularity of the book spread the falsehood widely. It has resonated with many people who still support it even after learning that subsequent work has largely refuted it.  I think a lot of people find reassurance in the idea that passenger pigeon abundance was due to Euro-American activities: the bird’s extinction at the hands of those same immigrants would somehow be less significant or awful. That we created the abundance exculpates us in our avarice that destroyed it.

Neumann, however, omitted many of the sites, including most of those mentioned above, where pigeon remains did appear. He also missed many of the earliest European descriptions depicting vast flocks of passenger pigeon. And finally, he greatly over estimated the degree and impacts that human competition and predation would have had on the pigeon population. For these and other reasons, archaeologists have largely repudiated this argument.  A detailed refutation based on a comprehensive review of  passenger pigeon remains in southern archeological sites is presented by H.E. Jackson of University of Southern Mississippi  (“Darkening the Sun in their Flight: A Zooarcheological Accounting of Passenger Pigeons in the Prehistoric Southeast.”  In Engaged Anthropology, edited by M. Hegmon and S. Beiselt. University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology: 2005.)

Professor Jackson’s work does suggest that pigeon numbers in the southeast began to rise during the period between 900 and 1000 AD, about 500 years before the appearance of Europeans. But even if this is true, the reasons for the increase are difficult to divine.  Fortunately, though, we have the opportunity to learn more about the early history of the species. The Smithsonian and other institutions are currently extracting DNA from the toe pads of passenger pigeon specimens (there are over 1600 throughout the world) in an effort to seek insights on how the passenger pigeon lived and died.

Joel Greenberg writes about natural history and has been most recently a principal in Project Passenger Pigeon, an international effort to use the 2014 centenary of the species’ extinction to help promote conservation. He is writing the first book on the bird since 1955. It is being published by Walker and Co., and has a publication date of January 2014.

To learn more about the Gensburg-Markham Prairie, visit:

http://www.chicagowilderness.org/CW_Archives/issues/summer2000/gensburg.html