Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers; so begins a poem by Emily Dickinson. This line served as inspiration for the title of Christopher Cokinos’ book of the same name. This tome recounts the stories of six bird species that have gone extinct in recent times.  The Carolina Parakeet, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Heath Hen, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, and the Great Auk all gone forever.

The author explores the histories of these species in depth. He traces the path to their decline into their final days. He shows how greed or ignorance ended in mere decades what took hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to form. Cokinos also writes about the struggle of certain individuals to preserve these species. He highlights their conviction and courage in a time when “conservation” wasn’t even a concept.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds is a dense book. It is full of details and historical documentation. But the stories are told with a delicacy hard to come by in most writing. Each chapter adds key elements which enrich the reader’s understanding of the processes of extinction, its causes and consequences. Cokinos adds some valuable details of the circumstances surrounding each tragedy: excerpts from a ship captain’s logbook in which he recorded thousands of Greater Auks harvested for food in the islands of Quebec; style notes of the ladies of New York who wore hats adorned with the bodies of Carolina Parakeets; or photographs of the last Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the wild.

Despite being sad at times, the purpose and message of the book are clear. The stories it contains are a warning – calling our attention to the effect our presence on earth has on the rest of the biotic community. In one of the last passages of the book Cokinos writes: “The deep sadness of loss is our best first response – but should not be our only response.” Hope is the Thing With Feathers is not just for bird lovers, but for those eager to understand a fundamental part of human history and its relationship to the world that supports it.

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