Joel Greenberg sat at his Westmont kitchen table, a bearish figure with curly gray hair mirrored by a short gray beard, in front of a stuffed passenger pigeon.
The bird looks like an oversized mourning dove, with stitches visible where the head had to be sewn back on when the fragile specimen arrived damaged. Greenberg calls it Heinrich, after Anthony Philip Heinrich, a composer who wrote an orchestral piece about the migration of passenger pigeons.
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It has come down to this: Once the most abundant birds species in North America and perhaps the world, passing overhead in flocks so large they blotted out the sky, the passenger pigeon now exists only as specimens such as Heinrich.
They were killed in such large numbers — for food, money and recreation — that in less than 40 years, the bird's population plummeted from hundreds of millions, and possibly several billion, to zero. On Sept. 1, 1914, the last one died in the Cincinnati zoo. With astonishing speed, the passenger pigeon had become extinct.
Greenberg, a research associate with the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Field Museum of Natural History, tells the story in his new book, "A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction."
The bird's disappearance is nearly unfathomable, Greenberg said. Even after his years researching and writing the book, "it's hard to get my mind around it."
Few people today know what a passenger pigeon is. It is not a homing pigeon, but a nomadic species — a bird of passage, hence its name — known for its massive flights and roosting sites.
"The passenger pigeon just stands out as a glorious example of the abundance ... that North America was," Greenberg said.
Greenberg knew about the bird because he is an ardent bird-watcher — to the point that he reflexively birded at his wedding.
The nuptials were held outdoors, at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, in 2005. "I'm performing the ceremony, and all of a sudden there's some bird that flies by ... and Joel screams out, 'There's a yellow-tailed blah blah blah!' in the middle of the ceremony," said Grace Dickler, a longtime friend who is now presiding judge of the domestic relations division of Cook County Circuit Court.
It was a yellow-bellied chat, but Greenberg got only as far as "yellow-bellied" before Dickler shot him a withering look.
"It dawned on me that, wait, that's not what this was about," Greenberg recalled. Though, considering that almost everyone at the small ceremony was from the nature world, he added, "most of the people would have probably known anyway."
Within that nature world, Greenberg, 59, is admired for his knowledge and his delight in sharing it.
"He's charming; he's bubbly," said Sophie Twichell, executive director of Friends of Ryerson Woods. "When you get him going about what he knows about, which is so vast, it's so fun."
And "he's not just fascinated by the natural history or science aspect, but he appreciates how it reverberates in music, art (and) literature," she said. "He often shares ideas with me about fiction writers, musicians, artists and more. ... Many of Joel's ideas have translated into art exhibitions, book talks, lectures and more at Ryerson Woods."
He began birding when he was 12 and fell under the spell of a massive volume called "Birds of America" at his Skokie elementary school library.
His interest grew, nurtured by remarkably supportive parents. One year for a combined Hanukkah and birthday present, his mother told him that if a rare bird showed up within 1,000 miles of Chicago, they would go to see it. His parents ended up driving him three times to a wildlife refuge in New Jersey.
Instead of attending his high school graduation, he went on a birding boat trip to the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands off the coast of Key West.
On the boat trip he met Kenn Kaufman, now one of the nation's top birders but then 18 years old, like Greenberg.