I heard a lecturer today refer to birds whose populations had been depleted at one time because people chose to hunt them in great quantities, often to eat. Robins, he enumerated specifically. A recipe for robin pie was printed in Wehman’s Cook Book, in 1890: “Cover the bottom of a pie-dish with thin slices of beef and fat bacon, over which lay ten or twelve robins, previously rolled in flour, stuffed as above, season with a teaspoonful of salt, a quarter ditto of pepper, one of chopped parsley, and one of chopped eschalots, lay a bay-leaf over, add a gill of broth, and cover with three quarters of a pound of half puff taste, bake one hour in a moderate oven, shake well to make the gravy in the pie form a kind of sauce, and serve quite hot.”
In the 1800s, species that went extinct included the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck, and the Heath Hen. Today, many birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
What is less well known is that once he had shot and posed his subject out in the wild in order to paint it, he would roast the carcass for his dinner. I wonder how the Ferruginous Thrush tasted.
Audubon’s appetites existed on a very small scale compared with Americans’ relationship with the passenger pigeon. Masses of them appeared in the sky and communities would gather to shoot them down. John Muir recalled having “seen flocks streaming south in the fall so large that they were flowing over from horizon to horizon in an almost continuous stream all day long, at the rate of forty or fifty miles an hour, like a mighty river in the sky, widening, contracting, descending like falls and cataracts, and rising suddenly here and there in huge ragged masses like high-plashing spray.”
In 1871, one nesting area in Wisconsin., measuring 850 square miles, contained more than 130 million pigeons. The last two passenger pigeons we know of died in a zoo in 1914. There is currently a genome project attempting to bring back these magnificent birds.
These weren’t like the city pigeons we disdain now, they were bigger and multicolored, more like a tropical bird. They would be transported from the wilds outside of NYC by barge to make New Yorkers’ pot pies.
Birds provided the decoration for hundreds of thousands of women’s hats, beginning to appear as high fashion in the nineteenth century. Feathers, whole birds, heads were proudly worn.
Would you prefer to eat your robin in a pie or wear it on a hat? Neither one, thank you.