Editor’ note: This article first appeared in the summer 2014 print edition of Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Outlook Magazine.
Aldo Leopold’s “On a Monument to the Pigeon” is widely regarded as one of his most moving essays. The extinct passenger pigeon is the main focus of the essay, but it is also his most thoughtful commentary on the larger issue of human-caused extinctions as a symptom of our tragic relationship with other species. The pigeon had been the continent’s most abundant bird until gross over-exploitation by 19th century market hunters pushed the species over the brink. The pigeon’s extinction is one of the most tragic episodes in the history of our nation’s relationship with nature. The monument Leopold wrote about is the famous Passenger Pigeon Monument that was erected at Wyalusing State Park by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO), which celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2014 during the same year that we commemorate the centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction in 1914.
When the WSO was organized in 1939, the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) featured prominently in several key discussions among the organization’s founders. Early decisions to adopt the passenger pigeon as the WSO logo and to name WSO’s journal The Passenger Pigeon came to fruition promptly, but action on the idea of erecting a public monument to the passenger pigeon took some time to materialize. In 1941, Owen Gromme (bird artist and Curator of Birds at the Milwaukee Public Museum) presented the general idea of a monument to members at the third WSO Convention in Racine.
Several WSO members who attended the 1941 convention were quite enthused and later that year offered suggestions on how to move the idea forward. Owen Gromme sketched several images of a passenger pigeon that might be considered for a plaque that would be the central feature of a monument.
So many individuals showed interest in the project that late in 1941 a committee was appointed to move the project forward. The committee favored one of Owen Gromme’s sketches for the plaque. They asked A.W. Schorger to draft an inscription for the plaque since he was by then the widely acknowledged authority on the passenger pigeon’s history. His inscription was accepted:
“Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”
With the image and inscription for the plaque agreed upon, the selection of a site for the monument became the focus of the committee’s activities. Schorger had determined through his meticulous search of historical records that the last passenger pigeon in Wisconsin had been shot near Babcock, Wisconsin, sometime between September 9 and 15, 1899, and the site was proposed as the location for the monument. Others opined that the Babcock location was too out of the way, and few would likely visit the site. The University of Wisconsin campus and the grounds of the State Capital in Madison as well as Devil’s Lake State Park were also suggested as possible locations, but those proposals generated little enthusiasm. In May 1942, Gromme and several committee members visited Wyalusing State Park to inspect possible locations for the monument. A site on Sentinel Ridge overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin River with the Mississippi River was chosen for its spectacular view over the river valleys, which would have been a seasonal migration corridor for huge flocks of passenger pigeons in the past. The Indian mounds along Sentinel Ridge were already an attraction that drew visitors to the site, so the group concluded that a monument placed nearby on the brink of the bluff would be well visited.
World War II put many plans on hold, including the plan for advancing the monument project. A plaque, sculpted by Earl G. Wright (Director of the Neville Museum in Green Bay), incorporated Schorger’s terse inscription and Gromme’s pigeon sketch; it was cast in bronze in time for the 1946 WSO convention in Appleton. Meanwhile, Paul Lawrence and his staff at Wyalusing State Park began work on the simple but elegant stone monument on which the plaque would be mounted. It was completed in time for the 1947 WSO convention.
On May 11, 1947, the convention attendees gathered at Wyalusing State Park for the official dedication of the completed monument. Featured speakers included Bill Schorger and Hartley H.T. Jackson, the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Section of Biological Surveys, an Honorary Member of WSO and future author of Mammals of Wisconsin. For the occasion Walter E. Scott edited the now-classic WSO booklet Silent Wings: A Memorial to the Passenger Pigeon, which contained essays by Leopold, Schorger, and Hartley. Although it is often reported incorrectly that Aldo Leopold spoke at the dedication ceremony, his famous speech was actually delivered a year earlier, and I could find no proof that he was even present at the 1947 event.
The monument was a signature accomplishment of the young WSO, and it immediately attracted widespread attention as the first monument ever erected to commemorate an extinct species, even being so listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! It later became even more famous because of Aldo Leopold’s poignant essay, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” which appeared in his classic book, A Sand County Almanac. In the years that followed, the monument became a pilgrimage destination for bird conservationists, and it was visited by scores of park visitors who often learned for the first time of the passenger pigeon’s tragic demise.
As the 100th anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction drew nearer, WSO again began planning for a commemoration centered on the monument. An inspection of the monument revealed that it was due for much needed restoration work. Over the decades, mortar had deteriorated and stones had been damaged and fallen out. The needed restoration work was completed in 2013. In collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, WSO erected a new interpretive sign that explains to visitors the story of the passenger pigeon and its significance. A 2014 reprint of Silent Wings will allow a new generation of readers to learn more about the passenger pigeon. Finally, the monument will be featured in a 2014 documentary film about the passenger pigeon, giving it broad exposure to audiences who aren’t aware of its existence.
The Passenger Pigeon Monument and Aldo Leopold’s essay will continue to remind generations hence of the careless loss of a bird that was once such a conspicuous element of the Wisconsin environment.