Martha: The Last Passenger Pigeon

In the times before the Europeans reached North America, the entire eastern half of what is now the United States was covered with unbroken forest. It was said that a squirrel could run from Maine to Texas without ever touching the ground. And one of the myriad of species that lived in this forest was the Passenger Pigeon. One hundred years ago, the last Passenger Pigeon died in a cage.

Reed-passenger-pigeon

Passenger Pigeon.                                    Illustration from Wiki Commons

In 1491, the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), may have been the most abundant bird species on Earth. Living in flocks that contained as many as two billion individual birds, it has been estimated that this single species made up some 40% of all the birds in North America. Flocks of Passenger Pigeons could stretch literally from horizon to horizon; some flocks were over 100 miles long. There are contemporary reports of flocks shading out the sun for hours as they flew overhead in an unending stream (leading to the bird’s name, from the Frenchpassager–“to pass by”).

And yet, 100 years ago, on September 1, 1914, the very last existing Passenger Pigeon, a 29-year resident at the Cincinnati Zoo named “Martha”, died in her cage, marking the extinction of one of the most abundant animals on Earth.

The Passenger Pigeon was a member of the Columbidae family of birds, which includes the pigeons and doves. Genetic analysis has shown that its closest relative is the Band-Tailed Pigeon from the American West. Fossil finds have shown that the bird has been living in North America for at least 100,000 years, and once stretched all the way to California. In appearance, it was a bit bigger than a modern Mourning Dove, with a slate-gray back and a reddish belly, with the males having brighter and more iridescent colors.

The birds lived in the dense temperate forests of eastern North America, feeding primarily on acorns, insects, chestnuts, and beech nuts. They were highly gregarious and social, and colonies often covered many square miles with millions of birds. During the spring breeding season, hundreds of nests would appear in each tree, where mated females laid a single egg, and both parents fed and cared for the hatchling. Just before the young bird was ready to fledge, the parents would abandon it, and the nestling would flutter down to the ground and fend for itself, feeding on worms, seeds and insects until they were big enough to fly. During this period they were easy prey for predators, but because there were billions of hatchling birds, the predators were swamped by sheer numbers, and most of the young birds survived.

Such an easy food source was not neglected, and Native American tribes in the eastern US made many a meal out of Passenger Pigeons–as did the European settlers when they colonized the continent in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the birds were so numerous that the humans barely made a dent in the population.

But technology would change that. By the 1850’s, the US was no longer a farming society–it had become industrial. Farmland gave way to cities and towns; railroads networked the entire country. Much of the dense eastern woodlands that provided habitat for the birds was disappearing; by 1900, most of the original forests in the eastern half of the US were gone.

As the birds became concentrated into smaller and smaller remaining patches of habitat, they became easier to hunt: railroads made it easier to transport huge numbers of hunted birds to market, and refrigeration technology allowed them to reach every table. Instead of the individual subsistence hunting that humans had been carrying out for thousands of years, now the birds were systematically exterminated on an industrial scale, and their enormously-successful survival tactic–living in huge groups that swamped and overwhelmed predators–became one of the instruments of their doom. Professional pigeon hunters began following the flocks by railroad, and tens of millions of birds were being shipped each year to feed the big cities on the coast, where they sold for 3 or 4 cents each. Their feathers were also used as a substitute for duck or goose in pillows or comforters. Many frontier towns depended almost solely on the Passenger Pigeon both for income and for its own food supply. The birds were easiest to catch as groundlings during the nesting season, but they could also be taken by setting a nesting tree on fire and picking up the roasted or escaping birds. And special nets were designed that could be placed in front of flocks to capture hundreds of birds at a time.

The combined effect of habitat loss and hunting at this massive scale was too much for the pigeons. Their breeding cycle was affected as well–the pigeons would only breed when they were present in large contiguous flocks, not in individual pairs.  Because of this, efforts by zoos and conservationists to breed the species, failed.

By the 1890’s, the species had declined severely. Large flocks became harder and harder to find. States began passing laws restricting or even banning pigeon hunting. Most of these were ignored. The rapid disappearance of the pigeons also led to Federal action–in 1900 the Lacey Act was passed, which prohibited the interstate sale of illegally-collected birds. But it came too late for the Passenger Pigeon. In March of that same year, the last known wild Passenger Pigeon was killed in Ohio, by a boy with a BB gun. After that, the species existed only as scattered groups in zoos, which refused to breed. On September 1, 1914, the last of these zoo pigeons, Martha, died in Cincinnati. She had never laid a fertile egg. What had once been the most common species in North America, was now extinct. All that remains of the Passenger Pigeon today are a handful of preserved eggshells and some taxidermy mounts. Martha’s body was frozen, skinned, mounted, and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where she is part of the research collection.

Today, there are occasional plans floated to extract DNA from the remaining taxidermy mounts and use it to clone the species back into existence. But without the extensive forested woodlands and the huge flocks that the Passenger Pigeon needed to survive, the species would never be able to return to the wild, and would exist only as living museum pieces.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.