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One Bird's Haunting Lesson For Us, 100 Years After Its Death

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Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon, died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914. Her stuffed remains are currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History as a part of an exhibit on extinct birds of North America.
Donald E. Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institution
Martha, the world's last passenger pigeon, died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914. Her stuffed remains are currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History as a part of an exhibit on extinct birds of North America.

On the ground floor of the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History, there’s a glass case filled with stuffed birds. From a distance, it’s kind of unremarkable.

But when you see what’s actually in the case, the story changes.

There’s a grayish brown stuffed bird, not unlike a morning dove, perched on a tree limb. Her name is Martha and she was the very last passenger pigeon to ever grace the skies. When she died 100 years ago in a Cincinnati zoo, she was the end of the line.

“Martha was a member of what was once the most abundant species of bird in North America, if not the world. She was the last living member of that species,” said Helen James, curator in charge of the Division of Birds at the museum.

Martha and a handful of other extinct birds are part of an exhibit called Once There Were Billions, spotlighting vanished birds of North America. In addition to the passenger pigeon, the exhibit features the heath hen, the Carolina parakeet and the great auk, all of which disappeared within the past 150 years or so.

Martha’s tale is an extreme example of what can happen when unchecked appetites and careless behavior are allowed to proliferate. Her species disappeared in less than a human lifetime due to hunting and habitat destruction. But Helen James says big threats still loom today.

“We experience some of this in the way we’re using our ocean resources, the way we’re harvesting from the Chesapeake Bay. Where are our oysters of yore?,” she said. “We do experience some of this. The rate at which we pull tuna fish from the ocean. The collapse of the cod fisheries…”

A massive collapse

In 1844, John James Audubon penned a now-famous essay about the passenger pigeon. He wrote: “The birds poured in in countless multitudes. The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose."

Ostensibly, the birds were everywhere. The early ornithologist Alexander Wilson estimated that one flock he witnessed had more than two billion birds in it.

All the common city pigeons in the world right now would not add up to the number of passenger pigeons that lived in the U.S. in the mid 1800s. They were all over the country from the Rocky Mountains to the Eastern Seaboard. Even northern Virginia. James says there are records of the birds nesting in Clarendon.

The birds had always been hunted for food. But as the railroad and telegraph lines charged west, it meant hunters were able to get word of flocks traveling toward them. And they were able to net the pigeons in huge numbers and ship them back east in barrels.

Plus, as the nation expanded, much of the old growth forest that passenger pigeons feasted on was converted to agricultural land. The birds ate tree nuts, and finding beech, oak and chestnut trees became increasingly more difficult.

“There was a combination of intensive hunting pressure and loss of those extensive forests that could have been the cause of this extinction,” James said.

A spark for conservation

Martha’s death wasn't taken lightly. After she died, she was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian.

“Her passing was widely noted and her train ride was pretty famous,” James explained. “Our curator at the time, R.W. Shufeldt, wrote up a little paper carefully documenting everything he did to this specimen. He was extremely aware that he would not have this chance again.”

The extinction of the passenger pigeon spurred the passage of a whole raft of conservation measures, including the Lacey Act. That legislation still serves as one of the most comprehensive wildlife protection laws on the books.

“All our other environmental laws have grown up since then,” James said. So the passenger pigeon was one of a series of common birds that apparently we drove to extinction. And it was a real wake-up call for our country.”

Music: "This is the Last Time" by Keane from Hopes & Fears

Smithsonian Report on the last Passenger Pigeon

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