Joel Greenberg has always been interested in animals.
“That has been the dominant theme in my life,” said Greenberg, 59, an environmental consultant. “Everything in my college life as an undergrad was based on where I could see birds. I (also) majored in political science because I was interested in environmental policy.”
An author of five books, Greenberg will be one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding festival. He will give his keynote address and sign copies of his latest book, “A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction,” on Wednesday, May 7, from 4-5 p.m. at the Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center.
Greenberg, who said he normally does about 10 speaking engagements a year, has been on the road a lot in the past several months. He said he has done 63 engagements in 18 states and one in Ontario, Canada.
“Ordinarily I do like to speak publicly, and I do talks at local groups,” he said. “The last couple years I have been focused on both the book and the passenger pigeon.”
Greenburg’s latest project has been with Project Passenger Pigeon, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the bird’s extinction and promote the conservation of species and habitat, strengthen the relationship between people and nature, and foster the sustainable use of natural resources.
“I have been trying to get institutions to participate in this year’s anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s extinction,” Greenberg said. “We have about 160 organizations in the United States and Canada. To me, this is an amazing story and a powerful enough story that if we tell it in as many different ways we can, through music and exhibits, it might be possible that we can attract people who may not otherwise be involved in conservation. We want to tell people about the story and use it to underline the messages in the story that I think are really critically important today.”
Greenberg started working on the book in August 2009. It was released on Jan. 7 and is being made into a documentary that should be completed in May, Greenberg said. There is also an audio version of the book.
“The passenger pigeon was unlike any bird human beings have ever known,” Greenberg said. “It was amazingly abundant, the most abundant bird in North America, as many as three to five billion. They were not evenly distributed across the landscape; they formed unbelievable aggregations.”
Greenberg said that famed French naturalist and painter John Audubon witnessed a massive flight of passenger pigeons on the Ohio River near Henderson, KY, in 1810. Audubon wrote that the sheer number of birds “eclipsed the sun for three days.”
“He said the (bird) droppings fell like snowflakes,” Greenberg said. “In 1860 there was a flight near Toronto that probably exceeded two billion birds. Forty years later the bird was wiped out as a wild bird. The last one died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914.”
Greenberg’s book illustrates that what is significant about the passenger pigeon is the speed at which humans drove the birds to extinction.
“We killed them,” he said. “We drove the birds to extinction in decades. From billions to none. They were shot and netted, mostly. To me, it underlines the fact that just because something is common-water, fuel or something that is alive-we need to take care of it or we could lose it.”
Greenberg asserted that the huge demand for passenger pigeons, which weighed about 10 ounces, came about because they were cheap.
“They would sell for pennies apiece,” Greenberg said. “As many as 40,000 could be shot over the course of a three-day (shooting) tournament. Primarily they were used for food by the wealthy, middle class and the poor. They appeared on menus of Delmonico’s in New York, and they were served at feasts for presidents.”
Greenberg and his wife, Cindy, who was born in Toledo, live in Westmont, IL, a western suburb of Chicago. Cindy is a special education teacher, and her husband travels the country and around the world speaking about wildlife and environmental issues.
“My passion has always been nature,” Greenberg said. “When I was real little, the first job I wanted was to be a farmer. I’ve always been interested in animals. As time has progressed I went into birding and then into a more general interest in nature.
“Nature is beautiful and intellectually challenging, and nature is important. It has caused me to go places most people don’t go to. I’ve been fortunate that I had a period where I did international travel. I saw gorillas in Rwanda. It becomes your world view and allows you to see things that a lot of people wouldn’t see.”
Kim Kaufman, executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, said she is thrilled that Greenberg agreed to be a keynote speaker at the Biggest Week in American Birding.
“We selected Joel as one of our featured speakers for this year’s festival, not only because the subject of his presentation and his wonderful book are so important, but also because Joel is an eloquent and engaging speaker who connects with every person in the audience,” Kaufman said.
Greenberg is an acknowledged authority on the natural history of the Chicago area, having authored three books on the subject: “Of Prairie, Woods, and Waters: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing”; “A Natural History of the Chicago Region”; and “A Birder's Guide to the Chicago Region.”
Greenberg has been a blogger for Birdzilla.com since 2009 and has received several awards, including a 2004 Environmental Leadership Award from the Institute for Environmental Science and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago, and the 1997 Protector of the Environment Award from the Chicago Audubon Society.
“I haven’t had a lot of time to go birding this year,” Greenberg said. “I’ve done some birding. I went to Indianapolis to be a part of a panel discussion on passenger pigeons and there was a blizzard and I went birding. This period in my life is so busy, I haven’t gotten out as much as I’d like.”
Greenberg said this will be his first visit to the Biggest Week in American Birding.
“I’ve never been to a birding festival at all,” he said. “I’m going to two this year. I consider this a real honor and I’m looking forward to it very much. I’ve been to Magee Marsh and that area, but never during the peak of spring migration.”