This morning I took our friends from Maryland to see some of the sights here in the Philadelphia area. At one point while we were walking, we came to a wooded area with a lot of leaves on the ground. A group of doves were feeding there in the leaves and my friend said, "you don't usually see a lot of doves in the forest."
Its true. Sometimes you do. I've seen small flocks of Mourning Doves in the woods, but more often they feed on the ground in more open areas. But there was something else different about these doves. They were larger than Mourning Doves. More purplish. We were only a few feet away from them, and in perfect light, I could see that they weren't Mourning Doves at all. There, right in front of me and my friends was a small group of Passenger Pigeons.
I know Passenger Pigeons are extinct, but that's what they were. Not five feet away. Six or seven of them on the ground. In perfect light. The scene will be engraven in my memory forever.
Then, hearing something behind me, I turned and saw a large pair of woodpeckers behind me. On most days, a sighting of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers would be the highlight of any morning birdwalk here in Southeastern Pennsylvania. But not today. Just as the doves weren't Mourning Doves, the woodpeckers in front of me weren't Pileateds. They looked to be about the same size as Pileateds, but they had large white patches on their back, and horn-colored bills. One, the female, had a recurved black crest. The other, the male, had a red crest. Again, I was very close to these birds. In perfect light. In fact, squatting down very still, I was able to get within inches of this pair of birds clinging to an old stump. The viewing conditions were perfect, and I studied the birds at length. There can be no doubt as to their identification. There, not 15 feet away from the Passenger Pigeons was a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
Anyone reading this would have to think that I'm either kidding around, or completely whacked, but let me assure you that this is an entirely accurate account of my experience. I really did see Passenger Pigeons and Ivorybills at 11:45 AM. Anyone who wants to can check out my story. I can provide excellent directions to these birds.
From where I live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, head south towards Philadelphia on the Northeast Extension. Take I-76 east towards central Philly, then take the left exit onto I-676. Immediately take the first exit on the right--that's the Ben Franklin Parkway. At the bottom of the ramp, continue straight for a couple blocks. That will take you to Logan Circle. Go 1/4 of the way around the circle and you'll see a large brick building on the right on the corner of Logan Circle and 19th Street. The birds were on the third floor of this building, here on display at The Academy of Natural Sciences.
While you can't exactly add these mounted museum specimens to your life list, you can see them at extremely close range. And right next to these birds, are three mounted Eskimo Curlews, a Great Auk, and a couple of Labrador Ducks.
How is one to feel at seeing the bodies of so many extinct birds? While I don't get to see Passenger Pigeons and Great Auks every day, even as museum skins, it was hard to get excited about seeing them. It was neat, but not a happy sighting. Instead of marveling at the sight of so many rare birds, the experience left me feeling hollow and empty. Their presence was a blunt reminder of their absence.
For those who care about birds, there are many such reminders. Too many. Small flocks of spring warblers reminding one of the many more birds that one could find in the past. Sightings of birds, now rare, that were once common. Rumors of ghost birds, hard to verify, in distant bottomlands of the Mississippi Delta.
These sightings and experiences are hard to take, unless you believe. Unless you feel in your heart of hearts that the Cornell researchers and Audubon volunteers will find the Ivory-bills this winter in Arkansas. Or maybe on the Atchafalaya. Or you can imagine somebody spending $100K to set up a private Attwater's Prairie Chicken breeding facility, and raising another $30 million to buy 5,000 acres of Blackland Prairie Farmland to restore prairie chickens to Central Texas. Or you can envision neighbors banding together to manage their property for the birds of conservation concern in their area. Or that we can rewild the American west by bringing back the megafauna that we lost during the human colonization of the Americas 11,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene.
Unless you believe, your heart must necessarily ache. Or you must numb yourself to the pain of loss. Unless you can envision a world teaming with wildlife. Unless you can see in your mind's eye flocks and herds to rival those reported by our ancestors, and see a way to bring that vision to life.
I believe. Can you? Can you see it?
For a $10 museum admission I can take my children to see Ivorybills and Passenger Pigeons any day of the week. Someday, I hope to be able to take them to see real live ivorybills. And Bachman's Warblers. And hundreds of prairie chickens. And thousands of Whooping Cranes. And maybe even Eskimo Curlews. I can see an America echoing with their wingbeats, where flocks of wild birds are more common than strip malls. Its a future I want to invest in. Its a future I want to leave for my kids. But its a future we may never see, unless we believe.