Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America

Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America

Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America

Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America


Emily Dickinson's poem "Split the Lark" refers to the "scarlet experiment" by which scientists destroy a bird in order to learn more about it. Indeed, humans have killed hundreds of millions of birds--for science, fashion, curiosity, and myriad other reasons. In the United States alone, seven species of birds are now extinct and another ninety-three are endangered. Conversely, the U.S. conservation movement has made bird-watching more popular than ever, saving countless bird populations; and while the history of actual physical human interaction with birds is complicated, our long aesthetic and scientific interest in them is undeniable. Since the beginning of the modern conservation movement in the mid-nineteenth century, human understanding of and interaction with birds has changed profoundly. In Scarlet Experiment, Jeff Karnicky traces the ways in which birds have historically been seen as beautiful creatures worthy of protection and study and yet subject to experiments--scientific, literary, and governmental--that have irrevocably altered their relationship with humans.

This examination of the management of bird life in America from the nineteenth century to today, which focuses on six bird species, finds that renderings of birds by such authors as Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Don DeLillo, and Christopher Cokinos, have also influenced public perceptions and actions. Scarlet Experiment speculates about the effects our decisions will have on the future of North American bird ecology.


This is not a birding memoir. I am not writing about how birds have impacted my life. I am not writing about a wild bird I took in and befriended. I am not writing about what I have learned from studying extinct birds. I am not writing about what I have learned from a life of bird-watching. There are already a lot of these books out there. I like them and I am haunted by them: their narratives; their personal revelations; their memoir-like qualities; their calls for conservation. But I have never named or lived with a bird and my experiences watching birds have been rather pedestrian. I do not believe that hope is the thing with feathers. I do, however, believe that humans have been conducting a “scarlet experiment” on birds in America for at least the past two centuries.

Hope is not the thing with feathers

Christopher Cokinos used Emily Dickinson’s famous line as the title for his 2000 book Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: a Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. Cokinos writes with poetic detail of the decline and extinction of six American birds: the Carolina parakeet, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the heath hen (technically a subspecies of the greater prairie chicken), the passenger pigeon, the Labrador duck, and the great auk. These birds, along with the Eskimo curlew and the Bachman’s warbler, have all become extinct since the mid-nineteenth . . .

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