On the afternoon of September 1, 1914—one hundred years ago today—the dead body of a bird was found lying on the floor of its cage in the Cincinnati Zoo. That was, and is, not unusual. Birds mostly have short life expectancies. But this one was special. It was frozen in a 300-pound block of ice and shipped by fast train to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington where it was stuffed and mounted.
The bird was named Martha, after George Washington’s wife, and she was a passenger pigeon. With her death, her species went extinct. That, too, was not unusual. The great auk (1852), the Labrador duck (c. 1872), and the Carolina parakeet (1918) had all gone extinct in the same time period.
But, again, the passenger pigeon as a species was special. Probably the most abundant bird that has ever lived, it had filled the skies of eastern North America in unbelievable abundance. Passenger pigeons had once constituted between 25 and 40 percent of the entire avifauna of North America and now it was gone forever. As a natural wonder it was like losing Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon.
In 1860, a British naturalist reported a flock flying over head in the early morning. A mile wide, the flock stretched from horizon to horizon and continued unabated until late afternoon. Since passenger pigeons flew at about sixty miles an hour, that means that that one flock contained at least 3.7 billion birds.
What happened? How could a species that could eclipse the sun with its abundance vanish in only half a century? The answer lies in the passenger pigeon’s habitat, survival strategy, and the Industrial Revolution.
The passenger pigeon was a creature of the vast eastern North American forest that once stretched unbroken from the Atlantic shore to well past the Mississippi. It lived on the mast produced by nut-bearing trees such as oak and beech. But mast is produced irregularly. Abundant in one area one year, the next year may see almost no production in that area. So the birds had to scout to find the places where mast was plentiful and they would then nest in that area. In Wisconsin in 1872 one nesting area covered over 850 square miles and each tree might hold over a hundred nests.
After two weeks, the roly-poly squabs were abandoned and, still unable to fly, they would flutter to the ground to fend for themselves. It was, of course, a field day for the predators in the area, but they could hardly make a dent in the total pigeon population.
But as European settlement swept westward in the first half of the 19th century, much of the great forest was converted to cropland and the pigeon’s habitat shrank markedly. Human hunters would shoot the pigeons, which made excellent eating, but, like the natural predators, they could not seriously impact the number of pigeons. Then, with the coming of the railroads and the telegraph everything changed. When a nesting area was discovered, human hunters would rush to it in large numbers, slaughter the pigeons by the tens of thousands, and send them to market in the big eastern cities. From that 1872 Wisconsin nesting, a hundred barrels, each containing 300 birds, was shipped every day of the 40-day nesting season. That’s 1.2 million birds and doesn’t count those that were shipped alive, consumed locally, or the myriad squabs who, their parents dead, starved to death when still in the nest.
Under the onslaught, the passenger pigeon population plunged. By the 1890s there were too few left to make the mass hunts profitable. But by then it was too late. The last pigeon caught in the wild was shot in 1898. Within a decade the only ones left were, like Martha, in captivity.
The Smithsonian has Martha on exhibit in the Smithsonian’s castle on the Mall in Washington, where she will remain on display until June of next year. She is worth a visit. And while there, remember what the great ornithologist William Beebe wrote about extinction: “when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”