Dec 4, 2008

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds
by Christopher Cokinos

This book caught my eye from a library shelf when I was looking for something else. Hope is the Thing With Feathers tells about the author's search for information on six North American bird species which are now extinct: the Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker, heath hen, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck and great auk. I'd heard of the parakeet and pigeon before and recently saw book about the ivory-billed woodpecker featured on Maggie's blog but knew nothing of the other birds. The information on some of them is very scant, but Cokinos digs up all the facts he can find. I liked reading his historical accounts, the awesome descriptions of passenger pigeons blocking out the sky, of how Carolina parakeets would refuse to leave their wounded companions, of how great auks waddled awkwardly on shore, completely fearless of man; and especially his scrutiny of all the different factors that played together in leading to the birds' extinction. Cokinos also shares his personal journey in finding all his info: digging through dusty files and forgotten records in basements, talking to people who now live on the land where the last known bird of its species was killed, visiting museum storage rooms where specimens lie in drawers, stepping inside the aviary where the last passenger pigeon lived (and died) in a Cincinnati zoo. Following the author as he unraveled all the stories to glean some bits of uncovered truth got a bit tiresome, though. After a while, the names and facts of these parts of the book blurred in my mind. It was dry reading, whereas his portraits of the birds used much more eloquent and poetic language. This switch back and forth of writing styles frustrated me, it kept interrupting the flow and I felt like I was missing something.

Some of the interesting things I learned were that Carolina parakeets are the only birds that eat cockleburs, honeybees are an introduced species (from Europe), the sport of trapshooting originally used lived passenger pigeons as targets (reminding me of Wringer), and the Labrador duck apparently was already scarce in numbers and may have been on the way to extinction before man affected them.

Edit: My daughter began looking at the pictures when I was done and asking me about the birds; I ended up telling her as simply as I could that these birds are not here anymore, and why (people killed them to eat them in pies, or put their feathers in hats, or cut down their trees and the birds had no homes...) She shut the book halfway through, on a page of heath hens: "this book is sad! I'm not looking at it anymore."

Rating: 3/5                    359 pages, 2000

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