Book Week: What is migratory bird expert Theunis Piersma reading?

It’s national Book Week in the Netherlands! A great opportunity to buy yourself a new book. But which one? Five prominent RUG employees tell us about their favourite books. Today: migratory bird expert and Spinoza Prize winner Theunis Piersma.
By Mella Fuchs / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

A Message from Martha: The Extinction of the
Passenger Pigeon and Its  Relevance Today,
Mark Avery

Migratory bird expert Theunis Piersma’s favourite book is both a travelogue and historical detective work. The book is about the extinction of the passenger pigeon, with the story focusing on one pigeon in particular: a bird named Martha.

Up until sixty years ago, passenger pigeons were extremely prevalent in North America. The skies would turn back for three whole days during their migratory period. Martha was the very last passenger pigeon; she died in a zoo.

Passenger pigeon

‘Thinking about the passenger pigeon makes me melancholic… Man, I would have loved to have been there when they were still alive’, says Piersma. ‘It was an exceptional pigeon.’

While the extinction of the bird is a tragedy, Piersma says we can learn from it as well. ‘Avery connects the event back to our current world, and that does make me kind of happy. The book is about how we interact with the natural world around us, the world outside our house, outside the vehicles we drive. It asks us to really see what we’re looking at.’

‘The book involves the reader in this exciting search for how we should do things differently. It’s an eye-opener that makes you feel all these different things: Wow, I can’t believe this exists! Shit, that still exists? Ooh, shouldn’t we do some things differently? Argh, should I change my life?’


Above all, Piersma says the book is funny. He refers to the fictional speech about passenger pigeons by Obama that’s included in the book: ‘I’d never read anything like it. It was so funny, and he did a great job writing a speech that sounded like Obama could have given it while still addressing the issues he thinks are important.’

In an ideal world, every student would be reading this book, says Piersma. ‘It’s about our future; what we should be doing, how we should be shaping that future… It’s good to understand the past.’

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