In Memory of Martha – The Last of Her Kind

Published on September 1st, 2014

Today, September 1, 2014, marks a century to the day that a legendary species of bird perished from the face of the earth. Martha, the very last surviving passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. And with her death, the passenger pigeon officially went extinct.

Martha was estimated to be 29 years old on the day when she was found lifeless on the floor of her cage. No passenger pigeon had been seen in the wild for years beforehand, and none was ever seen afterward. That is why she is believed to have been the very last one.

Martha the Pigeon
Martha – the last known Passenger Pigeon –
died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914.

By November 1907, Martha and two male companions were the only known surviving passenger pigeons left in the entire world. One of her companions died in April 1909 and the other in July 1910, leaving her all alone.

Martha thus spent the last four years of her life as an “endling,” an individual that is the last living specimen of a subspecies or entire species. When an endling dies, a unique genome that has survived and evolved across hundreds of thousands or millions of generations dies out with it. A branch of life, one that extended unbroken across hundreds of millions of years, all the way back to microscopic, unicellular organisms, is clipped off permanently. And extinction has claimed another victim.

Once it became known that Martha was the very last of her kind, she achieved a certain morbid celebrity status. Visitors flocked to see her, and there were even offers of a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find her a mate. Alas, too little, too late.

carrier pigeons
From billions to one. And then there were none.
Passenger pigeons (male on the left) –
once by far the most numerous bird in America,
and probably the world – were extinct by 1914.

Zoologists estimate that about 320 species or subspecies of land vertebrates have been driven extinct since 1500, virtually all of them as a result of human actions related to overpopulation: habitat destruction and fragmentation (mostly to make way for agriculture, but also because of dams, cities, roads and logging), indiscriminate hunting, and to a smaller extent, invasive species (including introduced diseases), pollution and pesticides.

Each one of these extinguished creatures was distinctive or special, but the passenger pigeon was especially special. And its passing all the more poignant and symbolic. That’s because half a century before they all vanished, passenger pigeons were by far the single most abundant bird species in America, if not the entire world. There were an estimated 3-5 billion of them: one out of every four birds north of Mexico.

Audubon magazine recounts the story of a Potawatomi Indian named Simon Pokagon who in May 1850 was camping near Michigan's Manistee River when he heard an approaching sound, as if “an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests towards me.”

Decades later, Pokagon wrote: “While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front millions of pigeons, the first I had seen that season.”

It could take hours for a single gargantuan flock, darkening the sky and numbering in the hundreds of millions, to pass a single spot; it was impossible to hold a conversation beneath them.

One flock took several hours to pass over Columbus, Ohio, in 1855, blotting the sun from the sky, causing horses to bolt, children to scream, and adults to drop to their knees and pray. In 1813, naturalist and painter John James Audubon recorded another flock that took three days to cross over the Ohio River.

Nesting passenger pigeons commandeered entire forests. Trees were festooned with dozens of nests, sometimes snapping off branches and trunks.

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947 

But then came the Euro-American settlers, first by the thousands and then the millions, armed with their guns and saws and axes and plows. And the passenger pigeons plummeted from the sky.

Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), father of wildlife management in America.

Pigeon meat was tasty, and at first the flocks were so dense that just waving a pole in the air could kill some. After the Civil War, the advent and expansion of the telegraph and railroad facilitated the growth of a commercial pigeon industry that butchered the birds by the billions. And forests were cleared to make way for farms.

By the 1880s the passenger pigeon was in serious trouble. And even as their numbers plunged, “there was virtually no effort to save them,” naturalist Joel Greenberg told Audubon. “People just slaughtered them more intensely. They killed them until the very end.”

Yet misgivings and second thoughts over the passenger pigeon’s dramatic demise helped spur the nascent wildlife conservation movement at the start of the 20th century. And throughout the century just passed, the fate of the pigeon has served as a cautionary tale for biologists and policymakers alike, pondering the implications of mindless human folly for all of nature.

Project Passenger Pigeon is using the centenary to commemorate the bird and the significance of its story. Still another group called Revise & Restore, headed up by the Long Now Foundation’s Stewart Brand, is underwriting a controversial project to attempt resurrection of the passenger pigeon, or at least as close a doppelganger as modern genetic engineering techniques will allow, using DNA extracted from museum specimens.

But we save the last word for the pioneering wildlife scientist and wilderness advocate Aldo Leopold, who spoke at the dedication of a monument to the passenger pigeon in 1947, the year before his death fighting a brush fire in the sand hills of Wisconsin:

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sports man who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.

We can make a difference. And we can learn from our mistakes, even our monumental ones.

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