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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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The Tornado

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For many years, probably the better part of a century, the old building had been a general store in Sugar Grove, which is just up the road a couple of miles from the Clear Creek Valley in Hocking County. But in recent years it has barely managed to stay open, most of its business reduced to soft drinks, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and the gas pump out front.

My children were elementary school-age and one wasn't even born the first time I stopped by there to get a fill-up and a round of pop to quench our thirst. A couple of barefoot local lads, swigging Coca Cola from old-fashioned bottles, were coming out the door as I went in and, I remember, I had to accustom my eyes to the dimness of the light as I passed over the threshold.

Behind a counter a man with a thatch of disheveled hair and spectacles half way down his nose was sitting on a stool reading a newspaper. A soda fountain with a marble counter and an array of syrup dispensers, long unused, was off to one side. There were other counters and showcases of wood and glass, old-fashioned and sturdy, antiquities from the days of dry goods and notions when, suddenly, I did a double take, not believing my eyes.

Hundreds of stuffed birds were set on the counters; others were perched on high shelves that ran around the room. There were ferocious looking hawks, solemn owls, ducks, geese, and swans with spread wings - as if ready to take off - rails and gallinules caught forever in stealthy stalking, and dozens of songbirds, some with heads tilted back, as if singing. And there were all kinds of animals, too. Deer and antelope heads are what I mostly remember.

The birds were so old they had lost their bright pigmentation, had turned a mummified grayish-brown color, all of them covered with dust so thick you could blow it off in clouds.

Then I saw the passenger pigeon, a bird now extinct, on a countertop, enclosed under a glass bell jar. It had retained a trace of its pastel rosiness, a glimmer of blue and violet iridescence along the feather edgings.

My mind recalled the history of this species and how it had once ranged over North America from the Gulf of Mexico north to Canada and west to western Texas and Montana.

A. W. Schorger in his book, The Passenger Pigeon, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, believes that before the settlement of America by Europeans the passenger pigeon formed 25-40% of the total bird population of what is now the United States.

In Kentucky in 1808, Alexander Wilson once estimated two and a quarter billion birds in a one-mile-wide ribbon that took four hours to pass.

John Audubon saw another flock in Kentucky that he estimated at one billion. In Ontario, Canada in 1866, Ross King observed a flock that was approximately 300 miles long, one mile wide, and took 14 hours to pass. Authorities have estimated the flock contained 3 billion, 717 million birds.

Ernest Thompson Seton, the famous Canadian author and naturalist, wrote: "I shall never forget the last great horde that passed over. It was in 1876, about April 20. "An army of pigeons flew overhead due north. The flocks seemed only about twenty deep, but extending east and west as far as could be seen, fading into a smoky line on each horizon . . . "

As we all know, the pigeons, doomed to extinction, were unmercifully pursued and systematically destroyed at their roosting and nesting places for their flesh and eggs. They became especially vulnerable during the second half of the 19th century when the number of large woodlands suitable for their nesting diminished and the hunting pressure continued unabated.

Their numbers plummeted when entire breeding seasons would be lost due to human harassment. Genetically coded for colonial nesting, the species was headed for oblivion by the end of the nineteenth century.

The last known individual, a captive bird named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoological Garden on September 1, 1914.

As the proprietor of the store, whose name was Paul Hoster, fished for the orange and grape pop for my children and a couple of bottles of Coke for my wife and me, he said that back before the turn-of-the-century his wife's father had been an avid hunter, had learned the art of taxidermy and slowly filled the store with his trophies. He wasn't sure when or where the passenger pigeon had been shot.

I was thinking about all of this not long ago when I read that a small tornado had passed near Sugar Grove and destroyed a trailer - as twisters invariably do. That's when I thought of the old store, all the stuffed birds and animals - and the passenger pigeon.

I imagined what would have happened if the establishment had been in the storm's path, if the old building had imploded, as they say structures hit by twisters invariably do, and all those stuffed birds and beasts had been liberated, tossed upwards, willy-nilly, on the winds of the storm.

I can picture it now. The glass case sheltering the passenger pigeon tips over and shatters. The extinct bird joins the wild melee of hawks and fowl and smaller birds, all released from their long-time prison, all rising like avian ghosts into the sky one last time. The animals sprint towards the canyons of the clouds, thinking them to be mountains.

Whisked aloft, the pigeon leads the way, higher and higher they soar, over Fairfield County and beyond. Like apparitions-or reincarnated spirits-they ascend higher and higher until they are out of sight, and where they ended up no one ever knew.

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