Wild turkey is not the only gamebird on holiday dinner tables. Passenger Pigeon recipes are even included in vintage cook books available for less than $10 – with free shipping.
By Rex Graham
For many Americans and Canadians, gamebirds are culinary traditions. Cook books handed down for generations contain recipes for cranes, Chukars, doves, ducks, geese, grouse, partridges, pheasants, pigeons, prairie chickens, ptarmigan, puffins, quail, snipe and woodcocks.
Crow or coot kabobs, anybody? (Cook book tip: marinate in Teriyaki sauce overnight.)
The tasty Passenger Pigeon was once a seemingly inexhaustible delicacy at North American dinner tables during the holidays.
Artist and naturalist John James Audubon described flocks in the 1830s that were a mile wide and blocked the sun for 3 days. The last known Passenger Pigeon, Martha, died in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Right up to the end, annual editions of best-selling cook books carried recipes for Passenger Pigeon – after chicken, turkey and duck.
Here’s a Passenger Pigeon recipe in Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book: A Manual of Home Economics (1886) (it called for multiples of six birds browned in bacon fat):
- Roll the pigeons in flower and brown them in the hot fat.
- When they are nicely browned, put them in a stewing pan, add flour to the fat remaining in the frying-pan, stir until a nice brown, add the stock or water, stir again until it boils, and the salt, pepper, catsup, bay leaf, onion sliced, parsley salt and pepper.
Pour this over the pigeons, cover stewing-pan, and simmer gently two hours.
Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book is still available for $9.99 with free shipping.
The recipe in a more popular cook book, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston cook book: what to do and what not to do in cooking (1884), also called for browning the birds in fat. The 1900 edition touted Passenger Pigeon squabs: “Young pigeons have light red flesh on the breast, and full flesh-colored legs. Old pigeons are thin, and the breast very dark.”
(Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston cook book is available for $6.49.)
These cook books helped doom the Passenger Pigeon.
Commercial trappers focused on chicks because they were favored in cook books. These entrepreneurs sought trees sagging under the weight of dozens of Passenger Pigeon nests. They simply lit the trees on fire and collected the singed and squawking squabs that fell to the ground.
Little, Brown & Co., publisher of Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston cook book, was awed that its non-literary title could be so popular (and profitable): “New editions are printed every year, notwithstanding that it was published 25 years ago, and has held its own through vigorous competition,” the publisher wrote in a 1909 promotion.
Passenger Pigeons had adapted over thousands of years to feed, roost and reproduce in big flocks and colonies. It had been a winning strategy. Birds of prey, foxes, raccoons, snakes and other predators were simply swamped by staggering numbers.
Unfortunately, the communal lifestyle and advances in transportation and communication formed this recipe for extinction:
- Start with hordes of commercial hunters and trappers.
- Add thousands of miles of railroad lines. (First authorized in 1827, about 9,000 miles of track had been built by 1850, according to American Railroads and British Investors. Every major city in the Northeastern U.S. was connected to the expanding rail network.)
- Mix in a nationwide telegraph communication system that expanded even faster than the rail lines. (Forward observers communicated nesting locations in real time to trappers.)
- The 1800 nationalistic imperative was focused on conquering nature rather than conserving it.
In the early-1800s, the bird that awed Audubon was the most numerous in North America and probably the world. There were more Passenger Pigeons than people. Evolutionary biologists say that such a plentiful species should have survived. After all, the chestnut, oak and other nut trees continued to produce the birds’ preferred food.
In theory, fewer, more thinly dispersed birds should have had time to adapt and rebound. The genetic diversity inherent in large populations is the raw material for adaptation, but Passenger Pigeons were surprisingly deficient in this diversity.
Most genomes in the animal kingdom accumulate mutations like 8,000-year ticks of a clock. With a super-large population, the ticking speeds up. At least that was the belief of Neo-Darwinists. After all, geneticists had many examples of the steady accumulation of neutral and slightly negative mutations in the genomes of many species.
A Harvard evolutionary biologist named Richard Lewonin challenged that notion that diversity increases with increasing population size. He discovered in the 1970s that genetic diversity actually decreased significantly in huge populations of fruit flies.
For decades, “Lewontin’s Paradox” was thought to be no more than an odd footnote of population genetics.
However, theoretical predictions about the direct relationship between population size and genetic diversity “are not borne out in the real world,” said a group of contrarian geneticists led by researchers at UC San Cruz.
They found that Passenger Pigeons had low genetic diversity in much of their genome, compared to their closest relative, the Band-tailed Pigeon. The researchers’ reported their findings in the November 14, 2017, issue of Science.
The researchers said that the Passenger Pigeons’ highly communal lifestyle was based on 32 stress-reduction and immune-system gene mutations. The spread of those beneficial genes included many genes that were adjacent to those 32 on Passenger Pigeon chromosomes. Large sections of adjacent chromosome piggybacked rides with the good genes, essentially scrubbing out genetic variation. The researchers said their low level of genetic variation would come back to haunt the species when its survivors were forced to live in small flocks.
The scientists analyzed Passenger Pigeon genetics from the preserved foot-skin cells of 4 Passenger Pigeon specimens in natural history museums. Newly developed gene-analysis tools confirmed the low variability of Passenger Pigeon genomes compared to Band-tailed Pigeons.
“In most species, it is probably safe to assume the majority of the genome is evolving neutrally, but for species with very large populations we might want to hesitate,” said Beth Shapiro, a lead co-author of the study and a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. “These tools that use genetic diversity to make inferences about historical changes in a population’s size don’t work at all for the Passenger Pigeon.”
Understanding the genetic diversity of species globally is not just an academic curiosity.
“Crop genetic diversity has a critical role in addressing food and nutrition security, continually increasing yield from crops and livestock (on smaller land space), and instilling resilience to climate change,” a team of experts led by Michael W. Bruford of Cardiff University in the U.K., wrote in The GEO Handbook on Biodiversity Observation Networks
In addition to Shapiro, the authors of the paper included Gemma Murray, a postdoctoral researcher in Shapiro’s Paleogenomics Lab at UC Santa Cruz, Russell Corbett-Detig, assistant professor of biomolecular engineering at UC Santa Cruz, and co-first author André Soares, Ben Novak, Nathan Schaefer, James Cahill, Tara Fulton, Peter Heintzman, Brendan O’Connell, Edward Rice, Samuel Vohr, and Richard Green at UC Santa Cruz, and researchers at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, University of Copenhagen, Pennsylvania State University, and Rochester Museum & Science Center in New York.
Their research was supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Revive and Restore.