Monday, 17 November 2014

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery

On 1 September 1914, Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon died in Concinnati Zoo.

In this remarkable book,  A Message from Martha, Mark Avery, former conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) explores how the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird in the world, was pushed into extinction.

Europeans hunted the passenger pigeon remorselessly, destroyed the forests that it lived in and didn't understand its breeding biology well enough to be able to recognise the signs that the species was in steep decline until it was too late.

Avery travels throughout the former range of the Passenger Pigeon to try to understand more of its biology and to try to imagine what these lands would have looked like if the huge flocks of pigeons were still there, darkening the sky as they flew over and breaking trees with the weight of their breeding colonies. He pieces together what he can of the breeding biology of this bird, giving a picture of a bird so numerous it didn't bother to protect itself from predators (which meant that when it's number declined, predators started having proportionately a much greater effect on the populations) and one that travelled from place to place to take advantage of the year's best food sources rather than being loyal to particular places (meaning that people were much less aware when the species started to decline).

He also outlines key facts from American history (and the life of Martha Grier, a resident of Ohio, who died on the same day as Martha the Passenger Pigeon) so that we can see that the story of this species is just part of the overall story of how 'Progress' was responsible for a diminuition in US wildlife in the time period during which the passenger pigeon plummeted from being hugely numerous to being made extinct.

The later chapters ask what relevance does the extinction of this one species have for us today? Parallels are drawn with the rapidly declining turtle dove in the UK.

The book ends with an imagined message from Martha:

'I forgive you for wiping out my species - you didn't really mean to do it, and maybe you knew no better. .... However...You can now choose ... the level of future ecological devastation, and the excuse of ignorance no longer holds. Whether you do better in the future is a test of your worth as a species. You have the knowledge and ability to live sustainably on this planet but it's a hard road from where you are now. It's no longer a matter of what you know - you know enough. From here on, it's a test of whether you care - do you care enough? Please care. Please do better. Please start now.'

It's a message we need to listen to and act on, now, before it's too late for the wildlife that still remains.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery, published by Bloomsbury.

As ever, red text contains hyperlinks that take you to other pages where you can find out more.


sage said...

Sounds like an interesting book--would you label the genre "creative non-fiction?" I also found the death of the bird less than a month into the Great War somewhat ironic.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Hi sage, 'creative non-fiction' or 'nature writing'....

A Cuban In London said...

INteresting book for sure. That phrase, "creative non-fiction", keeps cropping up more often. I like it but I don't know how to take it. Poetic prose based on facts? :-)

Greetings from London.

Carol Steel said...

Thanks for sharing this sobering post. It is too easy to avoid thinking and therefore doing something about this situation. We must pay attention. We must care enough.

RG said...

We are not a particularly responsible species, are we?

Optimistic Existentialist said...

Books like this are so incredibly important. We need to read things like this.

Maureen @ Josephina Ballerina said...


Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

That history is heartbreaking. We must remember.