Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Canada Killed the Passenger Pigeon?

Tom Waits, Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour

I don’t know whether, once you have an idea in your mind, you start to see it everywhere, or whether taking up an idea makes you a magnet for anything to do with that idea … but I do know that since I started writing about references to Canada, I seem to be coming upon them everywhere, even (or perhaps especially?) in the least expected places. So there I was, innocently trolling YouTube for Tom Waits videos the other day, when I came upon this: a compilation of bits Waits has done on Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show over the last few years. The reference to Canada is part of a segment on “Birds”, which begins around 1:28; the relevant quote comes at about 2:38.

Here’s the quote if you don’t want to sit through the video:

The last wild passenger pigeon was shot by a Canadian in Quebec in 1907.

That’s an interesting claim. The passenger pigeon is probably one of the most famously extinct animals in the world – by which I mean, if you asked people to name extinct animals, the passenger pigeon would likely be near the top of the list (after the dinosaurs, of course). Not that wiping entire species off the planet is anything to be proud of, but this would mean that Canada played a key role in a fairly major event in North American natural history.

But is it true?

Here, by way of contrast, is an excerpt from the “Last wild survivors” section of the Wikipedia entry on the Passenger Pigeon:

The last fully authenticated record of a wild bird was near Sargents, Pike County, Ohio, on March 22, 1900, when the bird was killed by a boy with a BB gun.

The Canadian Encyclopedia gives the same information as Wikipedia, as does the Smithsonian. So the weight of evidence seems to be against Waits here.

Curioser and curioser, as Alice would say. What’s going on? Has Tom Waits just made up his facts? What lies behind this attempt to slander Canada (and Quebec in particular) as the place of the passenger pigeon’s final demise? Why does he insist it was a Canadian who shot the last wild bird?

It’s possible that Waits picked up this false fact somewhere and is passing it on in all innocence, actually believing it to be true. But that seems both too likely and too uninteresting to be worthy of discussion.

Three other possible reasons for his statement present themselves:

1. Personal vendetta

For some reason, Tom Waits hates Canada. Who can say what might lie behind this – a bad experience on tour? Lukewarm reaction to Franks Wild Years from the Massey Hall crowd? Rejection by a Canadian woman – perhaps a Quebecoise, to explain his specifying Quebec as the scene of the crime?

2. Wishful thinking

Waits simply can’t face up to his own nation’s responsibility for the extinction of the passenger pigeon, and so he shifts the guilt to the always-amenable neighbour to the North. U.S. history isn’t the brightest when it comes to the treatment of wild animals, and any American of conscience could be forgiven for feeling a little uneasy about it; but Canada has nothing to brag about in that respect either, so we shouldn’t throw stones.

3. Performance art

Perhaps Waits just enjoys slipping a made-up fact in among historical truths to see who he can fool?

This is particularly troubling given that Waits has a reputation for knowing unusual but true facts. Jon Pareles, in a  New York Times profile, describes him this way:

In unscripted conversation … with the buzz in his voice, the metaphorical mind-set and the strange-but-true fact at his fingertips….  (“A Grizzled Troubadour Dusts Off His Bowler” NY Times, Oct. 20, 2011)

If Waits had dropped his “fact” about the passenger pigeon’s wild existence being extinguished by a Canadian in Quebec, no doubt Pareles would have bought it. Who knows – maybe he did.

Waits may see this as a form of performance art: he weaves together tapestries of odd fact, and occasionally he adds something fake in order to keep his audience on their toes.

And what does this tell us about Canada? Apparently Waits considers Canada a country of convenience for raconteurs: we’re the sort of place that is well-known enough that people have heard of us, but obscure enough that you can say almost anything about us without being challenged because nobody really knows the facts. The last wild passenger pigeon was shot in Quebec? Hey, sure, why not. That’s that snowy country to the north of us, right? Sounds plausible.

How should we take this: offended at being falsely accused of murdering the last wild passenger pigeon? Or slightly depressed because, while naturally we abhor the extinction of animals, it did make us sound, for just a moment, like kind of a badass country, and now that we know it’s false, we almost wish it were true? And has Tom Waits insulted us … or actually paid us a distinctly Waitsian compliment by believing a Canadian could be capable of such a thing?

Digression on Truth and Tom Waits (unrelated to Canada)

Now if I were blessed with unlimited time and indefatigable energy, I would take the initiative and check all the other “facts” Waits proffers in the course of those clips from Dylan’s radio show. But I really can’t be bothered.

I did, however, look into his story about the origins of the phrase “baker’s dozen,” which is from a show about “Numbers” and starts at around the 4:30 mark in the video above. According to Waits:

The expression “baker’s dozen” originated with King Henry VII of England. He ordered bakers who sold underweight loaves to be beheaded.

Bakers would therefore add an extra loaf to a dozen to make sure they weren’t underweight. Again, there seems to be at least some truth to this; here’s Wikipedia on the same subject:

The oldest known source for the expression “baker’s dozen” dates to the 13th century in one of the earliest English statutes, instituted during the reign of Henry III (1216–72), called the Assize of Bread and Ale. Bakers who were found to have shortchanged customers (some variations say that they would sell hollow bread) could be subject to severe punishment including judicial amputation of a hand.

In Waits’ version, Henry III has become Henry VII (a difference of around 200 years, but who’s counting? Oh, wait – I am); but perhaps the most characteristic – dare I say Waitsian? – change is the shift from the amputation of a hand to full beheading, which ratchets up the cruelty quotient significantly. And yet in this case, it seems even the Wikipedia entry may be exaggerated. Once you start researching things on the Internet, it becomes pretty difficult to come to any sort of conclusions about objective truth, but with that proviso, here are a couple of other notes on the same subject.

From The Phrase Finder:

The law that caused bakers to be so wary was the Assize of Bread and Ale. In 1266, Henry III revived an ancient statute that regulated the price of bread according to the price of wheat. Bakers or brewers who gave short measure could be fined, pilloried or flogged, as in 1477 when the Chronicle of London reported that a baker called John Mund[e]w was ‘schryved [forced to admit his guilt] upon the pyllory’ for selling bread that was underweight.

From The Straight Dope:

In the mid-13th century, British law imposed strict regulations on bakers regarding the weight of bread. Bakers wanted to make sure they complied, since the penalties were severe (a fine or the pillory, although nothing involving ears, so far as I know). It was difficult to make loaves of uniform weight in those days before automation, so bakers added a 13th loaf to every shipment of 12–better to be overweight than under. Thus “a baker’s dozen” meant 13.

So both these sources agree with Wikipedia except in the matter of punishment, where both mention fines or the pillory, and one adds flogging, but there is nothing about the amputation of hands, and certainly nothing as severe as beheading. Which means Waits has arguably taken us from bakers being punished by a fine all the way to their being beheaded.

Anyone familiar with his music will be aware of a certain passion for the Grand Guignol (here is just one example), which perhaps colours his recollection of the “facts” he’s so famous for dropping. And far be it from me to cast aspersions on the working methods of a great artist … but I can’t help feeling that some of these changes are a little extreme. Particularly when it comes to slandering an entire country.

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One thought on “Canada Killed the Passenger Pigeon?

  1. jim b. on said:

    FYI, Waits may have been fooled by a taxidermist (A. Learo) who made this claim in 1907, but who seemed to have had trouble determining the difference between passenger pigeons and mourning doves.
    I found this at the passengerpigeon.org
    I’d like to think that he doesn’t have anything in particular against us Canadians.
    ~ jim b.

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