Is it a Coincidence? Help Me.

a guest post for Sharpreads (published 1/14/13)

I’d love your help here. I’m about to describe something I discovered while researching my novel, One Came Home and I’d like your opinion. Tell me if this is a coincidence, okay? Seriously. I cannot get this out of my head.   

Backstory: I set my story in 1871 in southwestern Wisconsin because 1871 was the year that the last great passenger pigeon nesting took place before their extinction in the early twentieth century.  I latched onto it because a setting that included an enormous passenger pigeon nesting sounded unbelievable. Imagine the noise and stink, and then, hoards of birds flying forty miles per hour in out of nests. Perfect! So I plunked a fictional town nearby and began imagining what this might have been like.

Before we continue to my question, I need to tell you that One Came Home is not an “issue” novel. It’s not about extinct/endangered species or ecological disaster. I use the passenger pigeons as a setting, which made a difference for me as the author because I did feel that I had to tie my characters to the stake and force them to comment on a future they couldn’t know. (In a way, the lack of comment makes the issue of extinct species more potent, because reading with 21st century eyes we can see what people in 1871 cannot, but that’s for another post…) One Came Home is basically a western about a thirteen-year old girl who believes her sister is alive when everybody else thinks she’s dead and so leaves home determined to find her. (No, it’s not a good idea to set off like she does, but I doubt I’m the first author unable to persuade her character to behave sensibly.)

So here’s what I found out while I researched the book. This is the stuff I muse about at say, 2 a.m in the morning when I should be asleep. Clearly I’ve got a lot riding on your opinion, so please chip in. Okay:

  •  Early in 1871 (February - April/May), passenger pigeons fly en masse and nest in one great group. This is an unusually large nesting for the passenger pigeons. According to Historian A.W. Schorger in The Passenger Pigeon, this nesting covered 850 square miles. (That’s huge. Rhode Island encompasses 1034 square miles.) Schorger also says that possibly every passenger pigeon in North America at the time nested in this nesting.
  • 1871 is also the year of a great drought in the midwestern section of North America. The drought eventually leads to the deadly October firestorms that rushed along the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin and to the October 8th “Great Chicago Fire” in Chicago (See Denise Gess and William Lutz, Firestorm at Peshtigo for more of this.)

So — the million dollar question — is it a coincidence these two events happened the same year? 

 Yes, it is a coincidence. Or that’s what I thought initially. After all, the nesting happened early in the spring and the fires happened in the fall. Birds and fire? I mean, we’re not talking about the mythical Phoenix here…  

But in Firestorm at Peshtigo, Gess and Lutz speculate that one of the reasons for the incredible heat of the firestorm (a fire so hot it melted sand wrapping trees in glass) was because of the logging industry. See, by this point in North American history, logging had taken off. And after chopping down the trees, those logging companies left forests strewn with dust and debris — yeah, ideal kindling. Add a drought to this mix, and now you’ve got dry kindling.  

That started me thinking. I began to order and re-order the words, musing over causes and effects — logging, nesting, drought, fire…no water, too many birds, not as many trees… When you considered that passenger pigeons loved to eat the mast of certain trees, and that all living things care about water… well, now you’re at the crux of my question: Did the passenger pigeons nest in one huge nesting that year because of the drought and the logging? If they did, then their unusual behavior seems to be a sort of harbinger of the unusual (and deadly) events to come.  

Or maybe not. 

What do you think? 

Tell me your opinions. Give me titles. Let’s discuss this. And if you’ve got a good source for the 1871 drought, I’d love to know about it.