One hundred years ago this year, around noon on September 1st, 1914, Martha died. She was the last of her kind. Named after Martha Washington, the very first First Lady, she has come to symbolize man’s capacity for wanton destruction. Martha was the sole survivor of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird species on Earth. As a captive bird in Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Ohio, she must have been something of a celebrity. One can only imagine what it must have felt like for those who were tasked with her care. Her body was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and was then stuffed and placed in a glass display case with the inscription below.
Last of her species, died at 1pm
1 September, 1914, age 29, in the
Cincinnati Zoological Garden
The last reliable record of a wild passenger pigeon was near Sargents, Pike County, Ohio, in March, 1900; not many years before the species was so abundant that it was thought that passenger pigeons numbered well over a billion individuals and represented between 25 and 40 percent of the total bird population of the United States. The birds would form immense flocks up to a mile wide that could take hours or even days to pass overhead, darkening the sky. Ornithologists feared in those early years of the 20th century that the bird was extinct and people everywhere scoured the land in search of survivors. Between 1909 and 1912, the American Ornithological Union offered a reward of $1,500 — a fortune in those days — to anyone who could find nesting passenger pigeons, but the search was fruitless. As a wild bird, the passenger pigeon was finished and in captivity it could not flourish due to the need for large colonies for successful breeding.
The birds would congregate into ever increasing flocks and migrate en masse to winter in the forests of the southern states. With a rapid flight of up to 60 miles per hour, they made the journey in quick time. Perhaps this is where the name came from, as it is thought to be derived from the French passager – to pass by in a fleeting manner. The communal roosts were huge. Huddled together for warmth, there would often be so many birds crammed onto a branch that it would break under the weight.
With increasing human populations, conflict was inevitable. As men cleared the forests, the birds took to feeding on crops. They were an easy target in their massive flocks and were hunted and shot by the thousand. They became a lucrative cash crop. The meat was used as a cheap source of protein for the slave population. A dozen birds could be bought for as little as 50 cents.
The fate of this species is a lesson that continues to be passed down to generations. When it comes to conservation, nothing can be taken for granted. Seemingly too abundant to ever be threatened by extinction, they disappeared in a few decades. What can happen to the passenger pigeon could happen to any species on the planet, including that most dominant species of all — homo sapiens.