Songworks #4: Passenger Pigeons by the Handsome Family

This a beautifully observed, concise jewel of a song with a disturbing twist. This description would be true of many, if not most, of the Handsome Family’s songs, but I find this one especially moving. I’ve considered singing it during a solo set, but was afraid I would choke up – it still gets to me.

Ever since you moved out I've been living in the park
I'd rather talk to the wind than an empty apartment
And I wish I could forget how a billion birds flew in
My hollow dying heart, the first time I touched your arm

Once there were a billion passenger pigeons
So many flew by, they darkened the sky
But they were clubbed and shot
Netted, gassed and burned
Until there was nothing left but miles of empty nests

I can't believe how easily a billion birds can disappear

The park is empty now, it's so cold out
And all the paddle boats are covered up with snow
Once again it's dark, the electric lights snap on
But I'm still sitting here drinking frozen beer
And throwing potato chips into the white snow drifts
Just in case a bird decides to fly through here tonight

I can't believe how easily a billion birds can disappear
Oh, I can't believe how easily a billion birds can disappear

It starts with the protagonist sulking in the park as he can’t stay at home after his lover moved out.

The image Rennie offers for the initial flurry, the first rush of falling in love must be one of the most beautiful and true I’ve ever seen:

a billion birds flew in
My hollow dying heart, the first time I touched your arm

If it had been ‘the first time we kissed’ it would have been sentimental and veered close to cliche, but ‘touched your arm’ is true and honest. I’ve been there. I hope you have.

Suddenly we’re off into a much darker scene.

Once there were a billion passenger pigeons
So many flew by, they darkened the sky
But they were clubbed and shot
Netted, gassed and burned
Until there was nothing left but miles of empty nests

There’s an initial unease and almost embarrassment at hearing a phrase like ‘clubbed and shot’ in such a tender song, but then ‘netted, gassed and burned’ shows she means it and we’re to take this seriously.

Passenger pigeons were an flourishing species in America, indeed one of the most populous species in the world, until 1890. Their population went from billions to zero in just fifty years due to hunting. The last wild bird is thought to have been shot in 1901, and when the one passenger pigeon preserved by Cincinnati Zoo died in 1914.

Passenger pigeons moved seasonally by the millions, heading northward in mid-March to nesting territories that stretched from the Ohio River Valley to the upper Great Lakes and eastward to the Atlantic coast, then southward in the early fall into territory that spanned the continent from Texas eastward.

Observers of passenger pigeon movements have described passing flocks shaped like broad ovals and irregular sheets, miles-long and multi-tiered streams, thick horizon-spanning columns that “undulated like a giant aerial serpent.”

“The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose …”

Fueled by the continent’s verdant landscape — particularly by beechnuts, acorns and other tree seeds — passenger pigeon flocks operated like a biological storm, gleaning every scrap of potential food from feeding areas and depositing thick layers of droppings wherever they roosted.

The wild pigeon was doomed by its status as a food commodity in an industrialized economy that featured large urban markets and increasingly efficient rail and telegraph links to the farthest reaches of its range. Writing about an industrial-scale attempt to gather nesting birds in Michigan in 1878, Mr. Greenberg writes:

“It was as if oil had been discovered, for the birds were the center of an industry and their presence turned the region into a boomtown complete with hundreds of pigeoners from all over the country; pigeon dealers and agents; hordes of nearby Indians looking for work; pluckers, schuckers, pickers and packers; clerks to keep track …”

https://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/2014/06/29/The-great-extermination-Passenger-pigeons-once-filled-the-skies-but-we-killed-them-all/stories/201406290023

So we are left with the poignant image of miles of empty nests and the disbelief that so many birds could be wiped out in such a short time.

We return to the narrator in the park, as another night falls and he can’t face returning to his apartment. He throws potato chips into the snow in the forlorn hope that a bird will visit. The bird, of course, is the hope of feeling the billion birds of love in his heart again.

I can't believe how easily a billion birds can disappear
Oh, I can't believe how easily a billion birds can disappear

Just as an aside for songwriters – one of the things I like about the Handsome Family is that their songs work with little or no rhyme. This is something that I experiment with as a write. Having no rhyme creates a sense of instability, a subtle unease that makes you listen more to the lyrics. The no-fuss arrangement and tender, understated vocal by Brett Sparks make this an object lesson in less-is-more.

If you didn’t know the song, I hope you’ll like it. The album it comes from, Twilight, is one of their best and a great starting point for this unique band.

Album cover with blurred portrait and 'Norman Lamont' 'Breath'

Free covers album

My versions of songs by Bowie, Cohen, Brel, Momus, the Incredible String Band and more