Dickinson's Birds

A listening machine

dedication project overview navigation colophon sources

Dedication: To the Passenger Pigeon

Ectopistes migratorius

(amimi—Lenape, omiimii—Ojibwe, mimia—Kaskaskia Illinios,

ori’te—Mohawk, putchee nashoba—Choctaw, for lost dove)

In whose nomadic etymology is its future

 passing by,[1]

Pleistocene – Anthropocene

100,000 years Before Present  – 1914 Common Era.[2]

It flew at a speed of 100 km/h.

Its song may have sounded “like the creaking of a tree.”[3]


Orra White Hitchcock, “Five lines of ornithichnites fossil footprints”, 1836-1840, 69 x 164 cm. Pen and ink on linen. Image courtesy of Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Papers, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.

Land + Sky Acknowledgment

We respectfully acknowledge that the world evoked by dickinsonsbirds.org is that of the Kwinitekw, or Middle River Valley, a geologically ancient rift zone created by the breaking apart of the supercontinent Pangea 175 million years ago along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. When the glaciers receded at the end of the last Ice Age, birds soon arrived, making their dwellings in or migrating through the corridor of the “Long Tidal River” dividing two systems of mountains. Later, sometime around 11,000 years ago, humans joined them, following their visible and invisible song-lines, the skein of interconnected routes they traced across swathes of land- and sky. Among the earliest Indigenous peoples to inhabit these coordinates were the Nonotuck and their neighbors: the Nipmuc and the Wampanoag to the East, the Mohegan and Pequot to the South, the Mohican to the West, and the Abenaki to the North. We are guests in the sovereign territories of these peoples and of others whose names a murderous history has not passed down to us. We wish to express gratitude for their ancient stewardship of this site, for their continued presence in and preservation of it, and for their vital care of all living things, human and non-human, rendered acutely vulnerable by the forces of the Anthropocene.[4]
bird, psuk may be sound of birds taking-off); psukses little bird;

pussekesèsuck (Narr.);

pissuksemesog  very small birds [5]


Dickinson’s Herbarium, 1839–1846. MS Am 1118.11, seq. 11 (detail). Houghton Library @ President and Fellows of Harvard College.


[1] From the entry for “Passenger Pigeon” on Wikipedia: “The genus name, Ectopistes, translates as ‘moving about’ or ‘wandering’, while the specific name, migratorius, indicates its migratory habits. The full binomial can thus be translated as ‘migratory wanderer’. The English common name ‘passenger pigeon’ derives from the French word passager, which means ‘to pass by’ in a fleeting manner” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_pigeon).

[2] The Passenger Pigeon was a member of the pigeon and dove family, Columbidae. Fossil records show that it inhabited the eastern deciduous forests of present-day Massachusetts from the Pleistocene Era more than 100,000 years ago until the very edge of the Anthropocene when it was declared extinct in the wild in 1901 and in captivity in 1914: “A slow decline between about 1800 and 1870 was followed by a rapid decline between 1870 and 1890. The last confirmed wild bird is thought to have been shot in 1901. The last captive birds were divided in three groups around the turn of the 20th century, some of which were photographed alive. Martha, thought to be the last passenger pigeon, died on September 1, 1914, at the Cincinnati Zoo. The eradication of the species is a notable example of anthropogenic extinction” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_pigeon). The earliest written record of its presence in Massachusetts appears in 1630-31: English settlers noted that so “many thousands” appeared in the skies that they “obscured the light” and “covered” the horizon. The last Massachusetts record for the Passenger Pigeon was entered in 1903 by an observer noting just 25 birds near Crystal Lake (see A. W. Schorger @ http://passengerpigeon.org/states/Schorger-MA.pdf; The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1955.) Deforestation and pervasive hunting played principal roles in its extinction.

[3] Although it once migrated in flocks of 3-5 billion birds, causing “a torrent” and “a noise like thunder” (John James Audubon,Ornithological Biography 1831, describing his experience of an 1813 migration) not a single recording of its wingbeats, calls, or songs exists. For this description of its song, see A. W. Schorger’s 1855 April record, Middlesex County, Massachusetts @http://passengerpigeon.org/states/Schorger-MA.pdf; The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1955). In the birdscapes for April-September, the months in which the Passenger Pigeon was present in Massachusetts, we have included sounds made by one of its closest genetic relatives, the New World Ruddy Pigeon (Patagioenas subvinacea).  

[4] In forming this acknowledgement, we are especially indebted to all those who helped to compose Map by Native Land Digital, a map of Indigenous Nations of Massachusetts, https://native-land.ca.

[5] The New England Algonquian definitions of “bird” are provided Frank Waabu O’Brien (Aquidneck Indian Council); see http://www.bigorrin.org/waabu4.htm.