Hope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds

Hope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds

by Christopher Cokinos


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781585427222
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/14/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 691,289
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Christopher Cokinos is an award-winning writer and poet, and a professor of English at Utah State University. He has received the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Glasgow Prize for an emerging writer in nonfiction, and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award.

Read an Excerpt

"Hope" is the thing with feathers— That perches in the soul— And sings the tune without the words— And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard— And sore must be the storm— That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land— And on the strangest Sea— Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb—of Me.

—Emily Dickinson, "Poem 254," ca. 1861

Chapter One

The Forgotten Parakeet

ON A BRIGHT, CLEAR, WINDY DAY, MY WIFE AND I DROVE TO A NEARBY LAKE. We recently had moved to the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas and, profoundly depressed, I yearned for southern Indiana, where we had been for several years, where we had become apprentices to the land, to still-beautiful fragments of hardwood forest. I disliked an office job I'd taken soon after we had arrived in Kansas, as Elizabeth began her teaching career at a state university. I missed the magazine editing I'd left behind. Also, I had a cold and felt, therefore, full of myself, literally and figuratively. A little anxious at my grimness, Elizabeth suspected that seeing birds would help. I blew my nose, dubious of nearly everything.

    We thought we might see American White Pelicans, which look so ancient as they migrate through the eastern Kansas skies. That they occurred here was one pleasant surprise. Our destination for the day's brief foray was the River Pond, a small marsh adjacent to thereservoir in Riley County, Kansas, just outside the college town of Manhattan.

    The blustery wind and bracing light soon helped me forget the lightness in my head, the heaviness, too, and the ache in my joints. Leaning against open car doors, Elizabeth and I watched an Osprey that had soared into view just as we were parking.

    We stood by the banks of the Big Blue River. Here, the Blue serves as the reservoir's outflow channel. We watched cloud shadows plummet across the dam's earthen slope. A shaft of light touched the Osprey while I stood in a moment's gray. The sky kept changing. Talons dropping, the Osprey would plunge to the water's surface in a flurry of spray, but we never saw the catch. This was the daily work of survival, but when the Osprey flew up suddenly on its crooked, sail-like wings—savagely distinct amid darting Double-crested Cormorants—it did so, I thought, simply because it could. That would be a supposition, perhaps even a romantic one, because I don't know the hunger that drives an Osprey to plunge and lift and soar and look and, turning, to try again.

    Soon the ache in my soul vanished, too, at least for a time. The bright blade of the world cut painlessly and opened me. I would forget myself in what was about to happen and, over the years, this forgetting-of-self that comes from looking would lead me to love the bird life of Kansas, then Kansas itself.

    We walked to the duck blind, a tidy shack on the edge of the River Pond marsh. We stepped carefully through a wet field, and I thought suddenly of Rachel Carson; her book Silent Spring, published in 1962, the year before I was born, alerted Americans to the poisoning effects of the pesticide DDT on songbirds, seabirds and raptors. By accumulating in fat tissues at ever-higher concentrations the further it went up the food chain, DDT had threatened with extinction some of the very birds I see today in Kansas. Peregrine Falcon. Osprey. That Osprey. I thought of Carson's struggle with cancer and her battle with chemical firms determined to slander her. She would not give in, and I felt minor, inconsequential, ashamed at the black hole of my self-pity.

    All this flashed in my mind as quickly as a passing bird or two, a turn in the air, as I walked through a stand of plants I didn't notice then. Now I name and love Illinois bundleflower, whose seed pods cluster like tight brown fires.

    It is tiring sometimes to think of our postmodern grief, but it is a crucial beginning, a necessary grief before the salve of some healing energy. One moment we are watching a life not our own—a raptor hunting, a firefly flashing, a bison grazing—and the next we cannot help but think of how we are the degraders, we the deciders. And, yes, sometimes, though not yet enough times, we can be the rescuers, the restorers.

    At least for now. Until our species joins most of those that have burbled, walked, looped, soared, buzzed, spiraled, tunneled, whirred and floated on this 4.5-billion-year-old planet. The statistical paleontologist David Raup reminds us that 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived on the Earth are extinct and that, on average, a plant or animal species vanishes after about 4 million years. A firefly's flash in the context of planetary history. "Life," writes Stephen Jay Gould, "is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress. Most people may know this as a phrase to be uttered, but not as a concept brought into the deep interior of understanding."

    The world keeps telling us the story of moments. That day, at the River Pond, blessed by the Osprey, uncertain of tomorrows, we watched the clouds congeal above the duck marsh. We scanned the skies. Behind the clouds the sun became a white circle, a pearl. The sun roiled in its thermonuclear fate, reactions so numerous we might call them infinite, though really they are only countless. Tenacious and ephemeral particles hurled to the surface and through the corona and through space in a kind of wispy premonition of the sun's own fate—a billion years hence—the vast swelling, as the sun becomes a red giant that will burn this Earth of life. We are hardly permanent. The bacteria in our guts are more permanent. Summer's pond scum is older by time spans we cannot fathom: The elder cyanobacteria are 3.5 billion years old. They are an exception to the reign of extinction because they are still here; they've beaten the odds. How long will they last, after we are gone?

    More clouds came in, packing into available sky. A Turkey Vulture slid on the wind—a Great Plains front blasting through, maybe 30 miles per hour—and we shut ourselves in the duck blind beside the marsh. Out of the chilling wind, we were taken by its sudden absence from our skin, though the blind shook and creaked. As if our bodies are defined by what presses against them, self made self by what it is not. Our eyes adjusted and watered. We pulled out handkerchiefs and sat down on the one bench, unlatched the slats and let some wind back at us. I smiled at my wife, and she put her hand on my leg. We had never sat in this blind before—in fact, we had never sat in any blind before—so this newness seemed a small adventure.

    Elizabeth and I looked out the peepholes across the marsh at bare trees. I felt myself in a vastness at once beautiful and unpredictable. I felt how the world is always this series of moments, this very one, extended into eras, epochs, beautiful names, those expanses Cambrian Silurian Permian Triassic Eocene Miocene ...

    And suddenly I saw this: a strange green bird I did not know. A color that was tropical and out of place in autumn Kansas, an exhilarating smear of green, bizarre to see it here! We puzzled a second, offering out loud that it must be a parrot or macaw of some kind. I imagined this black-and-green exotic flitting through an open cage door, an open window in some kitchen in Nebraska or Iowa, as it flew—perhaps it still would know—toward instinctive warmth. The strange green bird did not belong to this place or season, these cottonwoods. It was an escapee, a vagrant, a jungle's life.

    We saw the bird zip and twist in front of us—it was black-faced, with what appeared to be black wing tips and a black tail, and fugues of a green, mostly dark green, it seemed, all over. The impression was quick, for a Sharp-shinned Hawk burst instantly from behind and above the blind. We heard the air closing behind its body as it hurled up toward the streaking green bird. The sky became a gray backdrop for pursuit. Across the pond's water a green reflection blurred.

    We ran out of the blind when they flew from our sight. Seeing the sharpie—a big one, pigeon-sized—swoop up into a nearby tree, I turned quickly to find the mystery bird, seeing nothing, turned again, and there they were again: the hawk and the green bird, and just as suddenly, a second green bird, the trio twisting and twisting in the sky, a live weaving of possible death, a braid. I lost them to distance, the hawk and its two prey.

    Then, across the River Pond, a racket grew, a loud chitter, like a clattering of sticks, desperate and ceaseless, like the final ceremony meant to bring a lost god back. We scanned through our binoculars for vibrant green among the gray branches. There! Motionless but brilliant and noisy in the cottonwoods. We silently watched the green bird for several minutes. I noted the black face mask, the silvery beak, the dark green of the belly with (perhaps?) a lighter blue on the chest. Perhaps a trace of yellow on the underside by the legs? The back a vivid green. I heard the wispy rasp of what sounded like finches, and for long minutes the strange bird called, slowing down to tentative squawks, a kind of invitation to the other, absent one, and each squawk a beacon to the hawk. The desire to be paired again, to be not alone was, though, stronger than fear. The bird called outward, alone, to another of its kind, to learn how alone it was.

    Until, sudden and poignant and tense, the second stranger—this bird whose green seemed from another world—came back, flew into sight, calling and calling, chased still by the persistent hawk, and the sky glimmered again with two green—parrots? macaws?—swooping sudden circles around a Sharp-shinned, who was simply hungry, desperate with its own need. This took seconds and then was over, there, in the world. The hawk, dizzied, broke off its chase. The strange green birds left us amazed beside an autumn wetland. Somehow they had escaped the hawk, somehow they had survived this hunt.

The next day another local birder confirmed my guess, but only after my first call to the Kansas Rare Bird Alert yielded no taped messages about weird, green birds darting around Manhattan, Kansas, of all places.

    "Black-hooded Conures, that's right. Faster than greased snot," he said. "They've been around a few days. Probably wondering what the hell they're doing in Kansas. But probably glad to get out of a cage." I concurred, looked at the field guide and wondered aloud if these escapees would set up housekeeping at the River Pond. (They never did.)

    Certainly I found something incongruous about colorful parrots flying over Kansas, a place—in my first years here—that I viewed through mental black-and-white celluloid. Parrots, conures, parakeets, macaws, all of them belonged in lush frondy places, jungles and tropics where the rich sipped umbrellaed drinks on stone terraces and where the poor sat on roadsides selling gaudy caged birds to tourists.

    That, of course, was my ahistorical cliché. As I looked up descriptions of foreign parrots and parakeets that had escaped into skies they didn't originally belong to, I found references to a native bird just as green as the conures I saw. I read, for the first time, of the Carolina Parakeet—a North American parakeet whose green, yellow and reddish-orange plumage appeared vivacious and altogether quite wonderful. As stunning as I found the hawk-chased conures, this bird astounded me even more. That the Carolina Parakeet was extinct simply added to my amazement.

    That I had never heard of such a bird did not surprise me; my recent interest in ornithology was eager and far from expert (and remains so). But others more experienced also did not know of the Carolina Parakeet. The more I spoke of the bird, the more it seemed that, somehow, its existence had been a chimera. Admittedly, my survey was small and unscientific, but intelligent people who could reel off the names of various dinosaurs and identify sparrows at epic distances could not name the forgotten parakeet. I realized, forcefully, what I suppose I knew abstractly: Histories, like species, can go extinct.

    Later, I learned that our forgetting of the parakeet had begun even before the species was extinct. One researcher notes the story of a reporter who profiled an elderly Floridian recalling his life in the early 1900s. The old man remembered that parakeets would forage on his family's land and believed that the birds came from Cuba. That's what his neighbors had told him. But no—the birds were Florida natives; the birds were Carolina Parakeets.

    The simple fact of the Carolina Parakeet—its name and its absence—stayed with me for several months, though I couldn't say much more about it, really. The Carolina Parakeet intrigued me, but its history had not yet fully captured my zeal. Details mattered less than my admittedly blurred image of the parakeet. I stayed busy with earning a paycheck and planning summer trips to escape Manhattan.

    Several months later, wholly by chance, a tall, blond Finnish historian named Mikko Saikku came to town and delivered a talk at Kansas State University. His dissertation research concerned bird extinctions in the American Southeast, and he showed slides of dead Carolina Parakeets arrayed on trays. It had never occurred to me that I actually could see the bodies of these birds. For days I felt shaken by the sights from his slides: neat rows of colorful corpses, beautiful, inert. I remembered what the conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold once said: "Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty." I understood that the Carolina Parakeet—Conuropsis carolinensis—was, by virtue of its beauty and its extinction, more than just a species.

    Slowly, those days, I had been learning to appreciate the loveliness of Kansas and of the Flint Hills, where the rare native tallgrass prairie still grows in wide vistas. My wife and I would be here a good while—I had come to peace with that—so I started paying more attention to the prairie and the birds it harbors, the Prairie Falcon and the Dickcissel, and even, at the lake in winter, many Bald Eagles. Perhaps Kansas was not as dull as my initial gloom had suggested.

    So it occurred to me that Mikko Saikku's startling revelation—that Carolina Parakeets once lived in Kansas—might be a way not only to learn about the bird but to feel closer to the place in which I now lived. The Carolina Parakeet specimens he had photographed were held in a collection at the University of Kansas, only 90 minutes away. Perhaps someday I might be allowed to see those specimens. Before I'd go, though, I would do some research. Where, precisely, had the parakeet lived? How had it lived? And how had it vanished from the American sky?

    As I began to learn the complexities of those answers, I could not have expected that a 10-year-old girl from another century would have mattered as much as she did. She joined me briefly, but significantly, in my search for the history of the forgotten parakeet or, rather, I joined her as I read of her journey.

    For not far from the confluence of the Kaw and the Big Blue rivers, near where I had stood watching green conures outfly a hawk, young Sarah Dyer saw green birds, too. Along the then-expanding frontier, almost 140 years before I arrived at the River Pond marsh in a car, precocious Sarah had arrived with her family in this very area—where she saw flocks of Carolina Parakeets. Between her year and mine, between Sarah's autumn days in 1853 and my autumn day in 1990, it was likely that no other parrots had flown these local skies or graced these marshland trees. Between her day and mine, this continent changed.

    Yet, by luck, we shared a place where each of us had sighted green birds above these rivers. The sense of connections I felt—to a vanished human being, to a vanished species, to the place we all shared, indeed, to time itself—branched upward in me like a cottonwood, which, with its furrowed bark and quavering leaves, I had come to cherish.

    At 63, Sarah Dyer—married as Sarah Woodard—wrote down her memories of settling Kansas and therefore achieved a measure of unexpected immortality by her brief mention of what she called "wild parroquets." Ornithologists consider her record authentic, so it helped to establish the range of the only parakeet native to the eastern portion of the United States. This is what Sarah wrote:

    East Spokane, Washington, March 8, 1906

My father, Samuel D. Dyer, was the first settler on the Big Blue. He came there in the spring of 1853, employed by the government to run the ferry at Juniata. In the fall the family moved there, traveling with teams from Ft. Scott, Kansas. We had one ox team and a team of horses. We drove our stock consisting of hogs, sheep and cattle. We could make but slow headway as the hogs and sheep could not travel very fast. We would camp nights and build a big fire and we children thought it great fun.

Game of all kinds was abundant. Buffalo—yes great herds of them. My brother-in-law, George Jameson, and Mr. Jacobs, killed a big buffalo on McIntire Creek. There was deer, wild turkey, prairie chicken, quails, wild geese, ducks and lots of wild parroquets when we first went there, but they soon left.

I could never again visit the River Pond marsh or drive near the Big Blue River without sensing green traces in the air.

    In Sarah's days and in years before, the Carolina Parakeet thrived. Relatively common, it ranged across the eastern half of the United States, north to Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and New York, down to the deep South and Gulf Coast states and west into Kansas, Nebraska and even eastern Colorado. The parakeet could venture that far west—across the prairies and plains—because it preferred what biologists call riparian woods, what writers of the nineteenth century termed more poetically "timbered streams." Such rivers and their trees snaked across the prairie and plains like narrow versions of the forests that were so vast back East. Where there were rivers and enough trees along the banks and in the floodplain, the parakeet could be found. Where there was river-bottom deciduous forest—including the cypress swamps of the South—the parakeet could live. In areas lacking wooded rivers and bottomland, the parakeet typically was absent.

    Wherever it lived, it was noticed. Archaeologists once found in a prehistoric Indian mound an effigy pipe shaped like a Carolina Parakeet. For Native Americans, birds exuded spiritual importance. Creatures and forces of nature were gods to this continent's indigenous cultures; these things, including parakeets, manifested a sacred cosmos. Of course, the European settlers of the Atlantic coast and eastern forests (and the Spanish in the Southwest and Florida, for that matter) not only rejected such pantheism, they used its existence as proof of Christian and rational Enlightenment superiority. In turn, this justified genocide. The land, dangerous, seethed with savage pagans, snarling wolves, giant bears—yet it also revealed an inexhaustible plenty. The land was not sacred, but its riches were a heavenly miracle. And these arrivers in what was, to them, a New World often had eyes for wonder.

    It is not surprising, then, that the Carolina Parakeet's noisy flocks and luminous plumage of green, yellow and red impressed writers of diaries, letters and books. A stunning bird, about a foot long from beak tip to tail tip, the Carolina Parakeet shone unlike anything in North American skies ever since. "We have seen no bird of the size, with plumage so brilliant; and they impart a singular magnificence to the forest prospect, as they are seen darting through the foliage, and among the white branches of the sycamore," observed a minister named Timothy Flint, writing about his travels in the Mississippi Valley during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Parakeets dazzled Flint's children; the youngsters "contemplated with unsated curiosity the flocks of parroquets fluttering among the trees ..." It's not hard to imagine why.

    Consider how the Carolina Parakeet's chest and belly showed a green slightly deeper and more vivid than the green of an osage orange fruit or a black walnut's husk. Its body shimmered greens, like lake water or calm ocean in the cloud-shifting, low light of late day. Its back displayed a green like dark, shiny leaves. A portion of an even darker green wedged along the wing, and the wing tips carried hints of bluishness. Where wing met body—the coverts—a yellow streak sparked, another announcement of color in the air; the wing's outer edge tinged in an orangish-reddish tint.

    Carolina Parakeets in the midwestern and western portion of the species's range were considered a subspecies or race, and these were paler than the more easterly birds. The western race had more pronounced yellow on the wings. East or west, the Carolina Parakeet's neck and head shone yellow, like the sawtooth sunflower, and its forehead shone the red of blood-oranges, the red of distant, slowly dying stars.

    What bird of middle and northern Europe could compare? The Carolina Parakeet received its first extended published notice in William Strachey's The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania in I612: "Parakitoes I haie seene many in the Winter and knowne divers killed, yet be they a Fowle most swift of wing, their winges and Breasts are of a greenish colour with forked Tayles, their heades some Crmysen, some yellow, some orange-tawny, very beautyfull...." Strachey concentrated on the bird's beauty but opened his description with an attribute of the Carolina Parakeet that settlers found nothing short of astonishing—the bird was strong enough to weather, well, the weather.

    During the winter of 1832-1833, with temperatures in the single-digit range, the explorer Maximilian, prince of Wied, saw parakeets along the Wabash River in Indiana; the birds sought sycamores on which to feed. Parakeets near present-day Omaha braved temperatures of -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Elsewhere, they endured air as cold as -25. Just south of my home, in the walnut groves of Council Grove, Kansas, an Army unit encamped, in February 1847, in the midst of a snowstorm. The men received much cheer from the wild parakeets, who seemed to keep them company.

    A few naturalists believed that the cold would sometimes induce the parakeets to hibernate, as bears do, but the evidence remains meager at best. Possibly, the birds became torpid, especially at night, in order to preserve precious calories. Certainly the parakeets showed themselves to be bright and noisy—cheerful, even—during long gray winter days.

    Dumbfounded Dutch pioneers in New York beheld a flock of parakeets in the dead of winter—a sight that frightened rather than inspired. Women trembled and men covered their mouths. These shocking-green, feathered rockets shot about the forest near Albany in January 1780, a sign, a certain sign, of the end of the world.

    Unlike the terrified Dutch, a German settler in eastern Missouri found the sight of winter parakeets reassuring and nostalgic. In a translation of his 1877 autobiography, Gert Goebel remembered:

These flocks of paroquets were a real ornament to the trees stripped of their foliage in the winter. The sight was particularly attractive, when such a flock of several hundred had settled on a big sycamore, when the bright green color of the birds was in such marked contrast with the white bark of the trees, and when the sun shone brightly upon these inhabited tree tops, the many yellow heads looked like so many candles.

This sight always reminded me vividly of a kind of Christmas tree, which was used [in Germany] by the poorer families ... A few weeks before Christmas a young birch tree was set in a pail of water. In the warm room it soon began to produce delicate leaves. When on Christmas eve such a tree was decorated with gilded and silvered nuts and with apples and candies, it did not look unlike one of these bird-covered tree tops, only these enormous Christmas trees of the forest looked vastly more imposing than the little birch in the warm room.

So the parakeet was a comfort, at least to some.

    From such reports, we can determine that Carolina Parakeets were so hale that they did not establish a regular migration from winter weather into more temperate regions. Apparently, the availability of food, whatever the season, most determined the movement of these birds.

    Prior to the introduction of European-style agriculture, the Carolina Parakeet feasted exclusively on the natural abundance of a wild land. They would consume a variety of seeds, from cypress to pine to elm to maple. Nuts, such as pecans and various berries, including mulberries, attracted the green flocks. They nibbled on pawpaws, wild grapes and leaf buds.

    Most decidedly, however, the species favored the common and widespread cocklebur. In what may be his most animated work, pioneering nineteenth-century ornithologist John James Audubon painted a family of Carolina Parakeets devouring cockleburs. One of the birds looks directly at the viewer, with his claw outreached toward us, as if we might hold the sustenance it needs. A reproduction of this painting hangs in my living room now. To fully appreciate the work, one must read Audubon's description of the procedure required for cocklebur dining:

[The parakeet] alights upon it, plucks the bur from the stem with its bill, takes it from the latter with one foot, in which it turns it over until the joint is properly placed to meet the attacks of the bill, when it bursts it open, takes out the fruit, and allows the shell to drop.

Flocks of parakeets would reappear daily wherever they found cockleburs "until hardly any are left," Audubon explained.

    The birds also relished salt, a necessary supplement to their diet. They would ingest the mineral at salt licks, springs and saline marshes. Naturalist Alexander Wilson—a failed Scottish poet who was Audubon's nineteenth-century contemporary and his competitor in compiling a multivolume work on American birds—once saw "great numbers" of Carolina Parakeets at Big Bone Lick, near the Kentucky River; there, he said, they drank "the salt water, of which they ... are remarkably fond." The parakeets also consumed—as do other bird species—sand and gravel to aid in digestion.

    To find seeds, fruits, nuts, salt and sand, the Carolina Parakeets would move about in flocks of a dozen to hundreds of birds. This roaming or "irruptive" quality makes it very difficult to estimate how many Carolina Parakeets once existed. While observers in or near the favored habitat of river bottomland forest found the parakeet common, even in such places the birds moved about as hunger dictated, much as Cedar Waxwings do.

    If flock movements in search of food were relatively unpredictable, Carolina Parakeets nonetheless had order in their daily routine. Morning's light saw them chattering in treetops, as if tarrying; then they would suddenly swoop up and out to feed. The birds flew swiftly in undulant flocks until locating a suitable food source, all the while calling harshly and loudly. Ornithologist Myron Swenk described the notes as a "shrill series of rapidly uttered, discordant cries, given incessantly when the birds were in flight, resembling qui-qui, qui, qui, qui, qui-i-i-i, with a rising inflection on each i and the last cry drawn out." Perhaps when the flock landed, a swamp or grove away, the birds then spoke to each other with a gooselike cry, which, Swenk wrote, "was frequently uttered for minutes at a time."

    After such early-morning flying, feeding and conversing, the parakeets took refuge in trees and quietly loafed the afternoon away; while there, they muttered and chattered in low tones, doubtless finding reassurance in each other's talk. The parakeets preened their long tails and wiped their sharp bills against tree branches. Then, in the late afternoon, hunger would send them out to feed again before retiring for the night.

    They spent their nights, like their days, together. Flocks roosted in trees made hollow from decay and disease. The parakeets grasped the inside of the hollow with their bills and feet, hanging in slumber through the night. Sometimes a lack of space meant that a few birds would have to sleep outside the cozy den; these birds clung to the tree, right beside the entrance hole. (We know nothing of the social "pecking order" of such flocks and whether the same birds had to sleep outside until a larger cavity was utilized or whether chance determined who slept inside or out.)

    The Carolina Parakeet lived so gregariously that it also nested in colonies. No one ever actually saw a Carolina Parakeet nest, a fact I find amazing given how many naturalists wrote about the species. But the literature strongly suggests the bird used tree cavities for raising young. The parakeets may have lined these hollows with wood chips before laying their plain white eggs. Reports from Florida that the parakeets built stick nests in cypress trees can't be confirmed, but seem dubious.

    There are other mysteries. What kind of courtship behavior did potential mates engage in? Did they nest in spring or summer? (The foremost authority on the species, biologist Daniel McKinley, infers from the contradictory observations of various naturalists that it was summer ... but here, too, we'll never know for certain.) How many eggs constituted a clutch in the wild? What exactly was the breeding territory? How long was incubation? (McKinley suggests about three weeks, but admits he is working from incomplete sources. So sparse is precise information on the Carolina Parakeet's life that not even one wild egg of the species is beyond question: Eggs claimed as having been collected in the wild might have been from captive birds.) More questions abound: How strongly did mates bond? Was the rate of reproduction as low as records seem to indicate? Did individual parakeets really live up to 20 years in the wild, as it seems they may have? And on and on. The answers to such basic questions as these disappear into the forests like green birds among green leaves.

    This seems an appropriate simile. Although boldly visible in winter-bare branches, although a flock could cover a salt lick like a wild green and red and yellow quilt, these parakeets all but vanished in trees leafed out for spring and summer. If the parakeets stayed quiet and still, they could hardly be seen in such deep green woods. In 1896, the naturalist C. J. Maynard wrote that the birds, so noisy in flight, "will all pitch, at once, into some tree and a sudden silence ensues. So great had been the din but a second before that the comparative stillness is quite bewildering, then too, the large flock of highly colored birds, lately so conspicuous, have disappeared completely."

    Maynard, who was trying to hunt the birds, searched among the leaves for a clean shot, but grew short-tempered and exhausted in his futile looking. He simply could not find the flock. So he flung an oyster shell into the forest—and out burst a myriad of screeching parakeets. Their qui-qui-qui calls probably seemed like mocking. As the flock twisted and turned, as the individual bodies of the parakeets angled this way or that, Maynard could see more of them as they flew away than when the birds had been so invisibly close.

    Only once have I seen a flock of wild parrots (parrots being larger versions of parakeets) and these I could not identify. Walking by a pier in San Francisco, near the parklike setting of Fort Mason, I heard a squawking I knew instantly was neither raven nor gull. I looked up to see—for just a second—a flock of perhaps a dozen parrots, with tails that seemed, at quick glance, rather long; the birds wheeled against the bright sky, then turned tightly into the green foliage of some large trees up on a far hill. Then, quiet. What were the birds? Where were they? I could not find them in the tree, though I scanned with a pair of small binoculars. I wished these new mystery birds would show themselves as the conures had done, years before, at River Pond.

    Though Carolina Parakeets, of course, never ranged all the way to San Francisco, I could not help but think of them. When Carolina Parakeets wheeled into the trees, I thought, it must have been like this: all that garish flurry, then a vanishing. Unlike C. J. Maynard, I stood too far from the trees and anyhow had nothing to throw. These parrots would not scare, so, if they cared to, they could watch, quietly, the many humans below.

Table of Contents

The Carolina Parakeet
The Forgotten Parakeet7
Hope in a Cage44
The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
In Search of the Lord God Bird61
The Heath Hen
The Fire Birds121
A Phoenix on the Vineyard168
The Passenger Pigeon
The Dark Beneath Their Wings197
The Boy and the Pigeon228
Martha's Story258
The Labrador Duck and the Great Auk
The Strangest Sea281
In a Northern Gulf: Journey to Bird Rock305
Selected Bibliography341
Art and Text Credits347
Reading Group Guide361

What People are Saying About This

Sheila Nickerson

Here poetry and science merge in a moving narrative of loss and contemplation that will touch every reader. Lovingly persistent detective work brings back flashes of color, bits of song, and curious lore from the last days of the annihilated. Through these bird species are gone, their histories live, thanks to the assiduous work of Christopher Cokinos.
— Sheila Nickerson, author of Disappearance: A Map

Carl Safina

Christopher Cokinos delivers much more than the jolting tales and details of felled fellow creatures who no longer share our air. There is a startling hope here, too-springing eternal in the tenacity of birds, and the innovative devotion of those who may yet raise the disappeared from the dead. This book will leave you with goosebumps.
— Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean

Bob Budd

Cokinos is a gifted writer, heart on his sleeve, yet firmly rooted in what science we can muster to explain things lost forever. Those of us who care for land, animals, and people have many lessons to learn from this story: humility to be sure, but perhaps more important, hope. Anyone who cares about the natural world must read this book. Far from an obituary, herein lies the future.

Jack Hanna

Through incredible research, Christopher Cokinos details the demise of six bird species. Fantastic reading!

Pat Shipman

In this engaging, thoughtful book, Christopher Cokinos skillfully intertwines biology, personal narrative, and historical accounts into a whole as charming and tight-knit as a weaverbird's nest.
—Pat Shipman, author of Taking Wing

Rick Bass

I was mesmerized by this fine book and felt in reading these lost natural histories as if I had both been given a gift, and had one taken away. I hope stories such as these will help renew our resolve to do all we can to prevent the further squandering of more endangered species and the wild landscapes that have birthed them.

Joanna Burger

Joanna Burger, Fellow in the American Ornithologist's Union, Distinguished Professor of Biology at Rutgers University
An elegant and delightful read. Cokinos' wonderful and tragic accounts of the demise of six American birds brings us all closer to long-forgotten birds that once graced our skies of hopped across northern rocky islands. His haunting accounts follow me into the fields and forests of present-day America, where I can almost see flocks of shimmering yellow and green Carolina Parakeets, imagine the drumming of an Ivory-bill, and lament the passing of the last Passenger Pigeon.

Bill McKibben

This story-of the ghost species still haunting this continent-is full of power and mystery, and Cokinos's writing is equal to the task of telling it.
—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature


On an afternoon in late September, in a brisk prairie wind, I watched a bird I'd never seen before, a bird that had strayed far from its usual skies a continent away. Nearly epic in memory, that day began my journey, though I didn't know it then. The journey would take years and retrieve many things: first among them the name of the bird I had watched and didn't know--an escaped parrot that didn't "belong" in Kansas.

Seeing this bird led me to learn of--and revere--America's forgotten Carolina Parakeet, which once colored the sky "like an atmosphere of gems," as one pioneer wrote. The more I learned of the Carolina Parakeet's life, its extinction and its erasure from our memory, the more I wondered: How could we have lost and then forgotten so beautiful a bird? This book is, in part, an attempt to answer those questions and an effort to make certain that we never again forget this species nor the others of which I write.

For as I traveled to libraries and natural history museums on the trail of the vanished parakeet, I soon learned of other birds, other vanished lives: the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Heath Hen, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck and the Great Auk.

I'd been a birder for a few years at that point in my life--the early 1990s--and I remain one today. Enthusiastic and, most of the time, at least moderately competent. (You can spot this kind of birder when he or she is in a crowd of experts; we're the ones who stay very quiet and will not venture a first identification for risk of mortifying embarrassment. "You thought that was an immature Black-throated Blue Warbler? Puh-leeze!") Despite my quiet enthusiasm for birds, I knew nothing about these birds. And why should I have known? I couldn't see them, couldn't add them to my "life list." They wouldn't show up on the local Christmas Bird Counts. They were gone.

Their absences haunted me. I began to write. Nearly 10 years later, this book appears.

While most dedicated birders will pore over field guides to puzzle out the nuances of Little Brown Jobs (sparrows) or the maddening winter plumages of various gulls, I'd sit at a library carrel looking at John James Audubon's Birds of America. I would marvel at the improbably massive beak and almost pathetically tiny wings of the Great Auk or the spiffy black-and-white plumage of the mysterious Labrador Duck.

What had happened to these birds? And why? This book recounts the histories of six extinct North American birds, the stories of their lives and their demise, the stories of the people who killed the birds and those who tried to protect them--sometimes the same people. This is a personal chronicle, in which I weave together these accounts with my attempts to understand them--which led me to visit the places where these birds once lived and died. I take a journey into the past and emerge, sobered and saddened, but also fascinated. And resolved to grapple with hope in this environmentally complicated time: The birds taught me that we can learn from these losses, take comfort in what remains and redefine hope from "wish" to "work." We can work to protect the still-astonishing nonhuman lives that have come to depend on us for patience and care.

Not only did these extinct birds inspire me to delve into and present their natural histories, they also revealed many surprising, compelling human stories. There is, among others, the tale of the painter who saw the last confirmed Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the United States (as its forest was being logged) and the heretofore untold account of how the last known wild Passenger Pigeon died. These and other stories dramatize our various relationships to the land and the sky.

This subject matter also demanded engagement in cultural contexts, the broader historical forces that hastened these extinctions. Logging. The millinery trade. Unregulated hunting. Bird collecting by amateurs and professionals. The stories of the Passenger Pigeon and the Heath Hen illustrate, for example, the story of nineteenth-century urbanization in America, with the attendant development of voracious, concentrated public markets--markets that, for several years, sold unbelievable quantities of wild birds.

Perhaps unlike a professional historian and more like the poet I have been, I have found myself drawn to the oddments, the margins, so that a cookbook's reference to Passenger Pigeon Pie looms as importantly in this book as, say, logging statistics. A settler's account of how Carolina Parakeets in sycamores reminded him of Christmas trees in Germany--that matters to memory as much as facts of biology.

The book's concern with context continues to the present day, as scientists and others ponder the startling possibility that extinct creatures--including these birds--might be reborn through the rapidly advancing science of cloning. Such a prospect looms, of course, because of technological advance, real and potential. We consider this possibility, though, within a modern culture still struggling to discover some semblance of balance with the nonhuman world.

So I have tried to write not only a natural history, but something more--a chronicle at once personal and historical, a collection of factual narratives that engage where we stand now, in relation to the birds gone and the birds remaining. We may never restore vanished birds through the promise of cloning. That may remain a Hollywood fantasy. But we can restore--we can restory--these vanished birds to our consciousness. That can be an important act of recovery of the human spirit in the nonhuman world. I know I risk accusations of nostalgia (I do miss these birds) but anyone who sees the past as important territory--as a map for the present and the future--risks that allegation. Curiosity began my journey, which led to regret, which brings me always to wonder and dedication.

Reprinted from Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Christopher Cokinos by permission of Jeremy P. Tarcher, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Christopher Cokinos. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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Hope Is the Thing With Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
JBD1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A well-written and affecting look at the extinctions of several American bird species.
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