Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds
(2000) is a non-fiction book by Christopher Cokinos that is part memoir, part natural history, and part investigation into the loss of six species of North American birds, all of which have gone extinct. Cokinos is both a poet and an avid bird watcher, and this book depicts both the historical and human context that lead to the loss of these species, and his own personal experience as someone who, along with other birders, has a strong desire to save the many bird species still at risk.
Cokinos breaks his book into chapters, which tell the histories of six now extinct species of birds, many of which disappeared around the turn of the twentieth century. He tells the history of the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen, the Great Auk, and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, primarily through a recounting of the human behaviors that led them to their demise. He also introduces a number of historical figures who worked both for and against these birds during the critical periods before they went extinct, and includes his own travel notes from journeys to the last known nesting grounds of many species.
The title of Cokinos's book comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson, which reads in full: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” The line, written in 1861, just decades before many of these birds disappeared, tells of Cokinos's underlying message – a plea to behave more humanely toward the natural world and to reduce our impact on the environment and the animals that live among us. For Cokinos, an avid birder, these lost species mark a loss of hope, and of wonder. In many ways, the book is an elegy to these birds, as Cokinos laments their loss. He writes about these missing birds as a way of returning them to the minds of present-day humans who, he believes, have the potential to change the human impact on other species. Cokinos attempts to bring awareness of the needless deaths of species that are now on the brink of extinction.
His stories about these birds are sad. The Heath Hen lived in Martha's Vineyard until 1932, though its territory previously covered a range from New Hampshire down to Virginia, and even as far south as northern Florida. Similar to a grouse, the hen was hunted to extinction. Because they were inexpensive and readily available, many early settlers in North America fed the birds to their servants, or supplemented their own diets with the birds. As they became less plentiful, the hunting did not stop, and the birds rapidly disappeared from the continent.
Cokinos tracks these animals throughout the book – he follows in the footsteps of famous naturalists who studied these birds near their extinction, including James Tanner and Don Eckleberry, who made the last known sightings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Louisiana bayou on a parcel of land called the Singer Tract. Cokinos writes extensively of his own trekking through the bayou, yearning for a sight of a bird that disappeared long ago.
In some instances, the birds that Cokinos seeks have been preserved by museums, as with the Carolina Parakeet, whose preserved bodies he visits and holds in a back room of the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas. There, he meets many researchers studying extinct birds, including a graduate researcher studying the mao, a bird that once had twenty species, all of which were wiped out by the Maoris. In this way, Cokinos paints a broader picture of human impact through the centuries, explaining that Pacific Islanders settling on new land in prehistoric times killed off more than 2,000 species of birds, cutting the global number of bird species by one-fifth.
Overall, though Cokinos's message is hard to hear, by writing about these birds, he attempts to make real the loss of birds due to human actions and destruction of habitat, keeping them in our consciousness. An avid naturalist, Cokinos encourages his audience to take action, as many amateur birders have in the past.
Christopher Cokinos is an award-winning author of poetry and lyric
non-fiction on nature and the environment. His books include The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars
and Bodies, of the Holocene: Essays
. He has received a Whiting Award, a Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, a Fine-Line Prize for Lyric Prose, and grants and fellowships from the Utah Arts Council and the National Science Foundation. He has taught at many universities, and is now on the faculty for the University of Arizona MFA in Creative Writing and a member of the Institute for the Environment.