As COVID-19 continues to disrupt our lives, many of us are turning to home cooking for health and entertainment. I work on my thin crust pizza and a lot of my friends call me at odd hours to ask for advice on making unusual delicacies.
But nobody called to ask me how to bear a pigeon (wrap it in bacon tied with butcher’s string). Two centuries ago, the passenger pigeon was the star at the dining table in most of North America. It was steamed, roasted, served in tarts and yes, without bards.
However, passenger pigeons are not remembered for their tasty (albeit dry) meat. They are considered the most famous culinary extinction of all time. The over-harvested passenger pigeon is a stern warning as we strive to manage the culinary richness of our ecosystems.
When they were as free as a bird
The passenger pigeon was a showy bird. The males were over a foot long and speckled with copper, blue, gray, and purple spots. Both sexes shared a gentle calling pattern that was once known to everyone west of the Rocky Mountains, but which no one has ever heard. But what made them stand out was their flock.
There were once five billion passenger pigeons that migrated together in a large circle from the southern states to the Canadian Arctic and flew at a speed of 80 km / h. The large herds would block the sun for days if they traveled overhead. They only stopped to raise their young in vast quarters hundreds of square miles. After they ran out of food, they had to move on.
Alexander Wilson studied birds in Kentucky and described them in 1810 as “living darkness, a loud rushing wind similar to a tornado”. John Audubon described a three day twilight as the birds flew over the Ohio River in 1813 and blocked the sky as they passed just above his head. He wrote: “The air was literally filled with pigeons; The midday light was obscured as if by a solar eclipse. “
Why they became rare birds
Unfortunately for the passenger pigeon, they were both tasty and very easy to catch. Indigenous peoples hunted them but were careful not to kill young birds. Initially, Europeans didn’t crush the large herds either, but as North America’s population grew and technology improved, we quickly overwhelmed the passenger pigeon’s ability to hatch enough chicks to replace the missing birds. The development of the railways and the invention of the telegraph made it possible for hunters to follow the herds, kill hundreds of thousands of pigeons and send them to large cities in the east.
Young, tender birds were especially valued in high society. Charles Ranhofer, head chef at Delmonico’s most famous restaurant in New York, served them filled with ham and truffles. He also cooked them with pork, mirepoix and cock’s comb, surrounded by lobster and foie gras. When the birds became rare, the New York elite continued to eat pigeon with peas, pigeon cakes, and pigeons fricased in wine reduction. In 1893 the last bird sold at Fulton Market received a high premium.
And then there weren’t any
The final death of the species was still a shock. Although the first endangered species laws were passed in the United States to protect the passenger pigeon and zoos rushed to breed them in captivity, the remaining flock shrank until there was only a single bird left. Her name was Martha and she was the last of her kind to live for four lonely years at the Cincinnati Zoo. When she died on the afternoon of September 1, 1914, a terrible milestone was reached. For the first time in human history we saw a species die.
Lots of fish in the sea?
Ocean extinction rates are much lower than Earth extinction rates. Over the past 500 years, only 3 percent of the extinctions were oceanic. The oceans are larger and take up more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface. More importantly, until recently we couldn’t technologically access the ocean in the same way that terrestrial biomes have.
Not so much for cod
In the summer of 1992, after 500 years of fishing, the northern cod population dropped to 1 percent of historical levels. Entire cities were made jobless when the federal government put a moratorium on fishing, and the species that was so much a staple of Newfoundland life that it was simply referred to as “fish” was on the menu.
No more tuna?
Like cod, Atlantic bluefin tuna is critically endangered. This splendid tuna is a wild-tipped predator and can weigh over 725 kilograms. Sport fishermen in North America have long valued the Atlantic Bluefin, but have been selling their catch as pet food for years.
However, frequent international flights and styrofoam packing boxes made it possible to fly fish to Japan, where bluefin tuna fetch fabulous prices. The high demand for sushi and sashimi has devastated the stocks of this massive fish, which have fallen by 70 percent in the East Atlantic and 80 percent in the West Atlantic.
Because the species is so valuable, global cooperation has been undertaken to limit catches, but with little success. The United Nations has opposed a US-led ban on the fishing and trade in bluefin tuna, largely due to resistance from Japan.
I am an optimist. I think we can think better about what we are eating and the stress we are putting on the natural world. I love bluefin tuna, but I don’t eat it anymore. It’s too late for the passenger pigeon, but we can make a difference every day and at every meal.
What can we do?
As observant consumers, we can make choices that greatly reduce the potential for further culinary extinctions.
- We can choose diets that are lighter in animal protein. Seventy percent of the earth’s arable land is used for meat production, and our hunger is driving deforestation and land degradation worldwide.
- We should eat fish less often, and when we do we should buy Ocean Wise.
- We should also eat less in the food chain. Large predators such as the Atlantic bluefin are few in number and reproduce slowly.
- We can choose sustainably harvested shrimp, a much better choice.
How to conscientiously consume fish
Learn more about Ocean Wise (seafood.ocean.org), a conservation program that addresses overfishing and combats damage to marine habitats. Their labeling program helps consumers make sustainable seafood choices.
The Lost Feast post appeared alive first.