S. W. Woodhouse, the young surgeon-naturalist, left Philadelphia in the spring of 1849 to join the Creek-Cherokee boundary survey. Like most of the Mvskokes who removed to Indian Territory a few years earlier, he had never been so far west.
Woodhouse filled three small journals during the summers of 1849 and 1850, recording his observations of the flora and fauna in Mvskoke country. As an avid ornithologist, he was especially interested in the birds he saw while following the survey crew.
Among the many avian species he noted were the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and the ivory-billed woodpecker. Mvskokes who had made the long trek from the old country were familiar with all three birds as well, since each ranged widely over the southeastern part of the continent.
Passenger pigeons were once the most numerous bird in North America. A single migrating flock could stretch a mile wide and take several hours to pass overhead. Their roosts were congested enough to break tree limbs. They were easy to hunt, and nineteenth-century Americans devoured them the way we eat chickens today.
Carolina parakeets also traveled in large and noisy flocks. As the continent’s only native parrot north of Mexico, they were valued for their brightly colored feathers: green body, yellow head, red-orange mask around the beak. And these talkative birds would eat just about anything, including farm produce.
Ivory-billed woodpeckers were much less prevalent and preferred living in swampy forests. With a typical wingspan of over thirty inches, they were one of the largest woodpeckers in the world. Their black, white, and red coloration is very similar to the more common pileated woodpecker, with whom they are often confused.
These three familiar birds must have helped ease the transition for Mvskokes forced to move west, reminding them of home since time immemorial.
Unfortunately, these friendly reminders did not last long. By the early twentieth century, all three species had been declared extinct.
American merchants overhunted the passenger pigeon as a profitable food commodity. American farmers massacred the Carolina parakeet to protect their commercial crops. American developers wiped out the ivory-billed woodpecker by destroying much of its specialized habitat.
We’ll never again see these three old friends winging their way across Mvskoke country.
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The extinction of a species is always a sad event, and it’s the kind of news that usually comes from scientists who specialize in one thing or another. As it turns out, these particular losses were also recorded in the Mvskoke language.
We can find evidence of our changing relationship to the natural world by comparing the two comprehensive dictionaries translating Mvskoke words into English: the first, written by R. M. Loughridge and David M. Hodge and published in 1890; the second, written by Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin and published in 2000.
Today, for example, the Mvskoke word pvce means “pigeon.” But as Martin and Mauldin point out, it formerly referred to “the passenger pigeon,” a more specific sense of the word that became obsolete when this bird disappeared.
The related word pvce-lane (literally, green pigeon) means “parrot.” Loughridge and Hodge, however, noted an older sense, “parraquet” (parakeet), reflecting Mvskoke familiarity with the Carolina parakeet in 1890. This species would also soon be gone, as would the meaning of its Mvskoke name.
The ivory-billed woodpecker is a more elusive prey. Loughridge and Hodge recorded at least six words for different types of woodpecker, while Martin and Mauldin recorded more than eight. Most of their definitions are too general to correlate with particular species, especially those that haven’t been seen for nearly a century.
Perhaps one of these terms was used for ivory-billed woodpeckers, or perhaps the Mvskoke name has been lost. Or perhaps it survives in the memory of one of our elders, just as some ornithologists believe the ivory-billed woodpecker still lives in the Big Woods region of Arkansas.
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Neither dictionary includes a Mvskoke word for “extinct” or “extinction,” but maybe we should come up with one pretty soon.
Scientists now say the planet’s animal and plant species are becoming extinct at a rate higher than any time in the past sixty-five million years. That’s going back to the fifth mass extinction in earth’s history, the one that killed most of the dinosaurs. Cause of death? A warmer climate.
Today we’re witnessing the sixth mass extinction on planet earth. What makes this current episode different is that global warming is being caused by human activity.
We must reduce our exploitation of the natural world, lest we lose any more of our old friends. We must stop climate change before it stops us.