Today, we delve into the history of a little-known hero who’s story has lasted well over 100 years. Beyond a single life, we will focus on the breed once known as “the Passenger Pigeon”, who were among the most populous bird breeds in the world but are sadly now gone, wiped from the earth for over a century. How and why did they disappear? Did they pose a threat? What is the story of this once proud and thriving breed? THIS is their true story and the story of the last of their breed…
In 1907, there were four passenger pigeons living in the bird enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. These were the last four known living examples of this bird breed. Their flock was composed of three males and one female; she was named Martha, after the first First Lady, Martha Washington. Public records show that when the Cincinnati Zoo opened in 1875, their aviary house advertised 22 birds in their collection. In 1877, the zoo in Cincinnati added four pairs of passenger pigeons to their collection of birds, Martha was the proud offspring of one of these pairs in 1885. This is how Martha the passenger pigeon came to find herself living a life of captivity in the Cincinnati Zoo. Little did anyone know that a single small bird would eventually be destined to become the national symbol of her dying breed.
As a point of historical reference, in 1800 there were an estimated five billion passenger pigeons flying free in the world. To give you some scope of what that number of birds would look like, it’s said that in a nesting area in rural Wisconsin in the early-1800’s, an 850 square mile radius was breeding ground for over 136 million passenger pigeons. They were free to fly and grow, migrating south in huge flocks as the seasons changed from warmer to cooler temperatures. The expansion and migration of humans westward from the East Coast, the mass influx of migrant farmers into the midwest and the creation of the early farming homestead by settlers slowly began to eliminate the forest land that the passenger pigeons called home, replacing it instead with fields and crops. The natural impact of this change would be for the birds to continue to migrate into the area, but now they were being served a ready made food source of freshly planted crops. This combination of man and natures adaptation to their surroundings lead to the eventual systematic elimination of the passenger pigeon. Farmers saw the birds as “locust like pests” who were destroying the farmers newly planted crops… the very crops had become the birds primary food source due to man’s destruction of the birds historical and natural home… this was the primary reason for the massive number drop of the species over the 100 year period.
As a documented example, in 1878 a community in Michigan turned their sights on the passenger pigeon population as a cause for their poor crop production. Over the course of the year, the migrating flock of the birds was shot, clubbed, or captured and killed at the rate of 50,000 birds a day. This continued for five months, and didn’t end until it was time for the flock to migrate south, at least what was left of them. In real numbers, this would have totalled 5,500,000 birds in this single spring and summer event isolated to one area in Michigan. The passenger pigeons were easy prey, as they only traveled and gathered in their huge flocks. Mates for life, birds of a feather, even in death.
In addition to the elimination as a pest and threat to crops, the passenger pigeon was also hunted for sport and captured for commercial sale as a caged pet in the 1800’s. Even as their numbers visibly diminished over the last part of the century, man continued to be man, never wavering from their relentless attack on the species. New reports from the time state that in 1900 the last of the free and uncaged passenger pigeon, the remaining wild passenger pigeon out of captivity, was shot and killed in Ohio by a 14 year old farm boy. The bird’s crime? Simply, the bird was eating the farm family’s corn corp. This simple act completed the extermination of the passenger pigeon in the wild.
Martha and her brothers continued to live in the Japanese pagoda style enclosure created by the Cincinnati Zoo, with all the other bird collections. In 1907, there were only three of the passenger pigeons left at the zoo. During the winter of 1909, one of Martha’s brothers passed away, then her remaining brother died peacefully a year later in 1910. With all her brothers gone Martha was alone, from a passenger pigeon perspective. As word of her situation was made public, Martha became a bit of a national celebrity, touted and shown in many National publications of the time. Cincinnati Zoo management attempted to find a suitable mate for her, hoping to find another passenger pigeon out in the captive world to mate with Martha and extend or rejuvenate the breed. Sadly, no other party stepped forward with a mate. It was beginning to look like Martha was truly the last of her kind.
The zoo operators offered a $1000 reward to anyone that could bring forward a suitable mate for Martha. They even attempted to find birds of other bird types to mate with her in an attempt to continue on some portion of the bloodline, but this was not successful either. At some point after 1911 Martha, aging and lonely, suffered a stroke, leaving her movement very limited. The zoo staff constructed a new lower perch for her, one that she could still reach, with her limited mobility. In Grand Dame fashion, Martha continued to sit on her lower perch so she could sun and sit her days away.
Sadly, on September 1, 1914, Martha died of old age. She fell off her perch and was found lifeless on her enclosure floor. Zoo records show that this grand old lady of the passenger pigeons, the last of her breed, was 29 years old at the time of her death. Martha has the distinction of being the first known species to be driven to extinction in captivity. Her breed ended with her death but the wild and free passenger pigeon, once flourishing at five billion birds, was gone completely now.
Even in death, Martha had a story. The zoo realized the depth and meaning of her passing and immediately encased her body in 300lbs of ice and shipped her to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. S he arrived in Washington on September 4th and was immediately photographed for their records. Sadly, she was not at her best, as Maratha was molting at the time of her death and was missing feathers, including her beautiful tail feathers. It was not her best look but she was 29 years old! Shortly after arriving in D.C. Martha was stuffed, mounted and displayed at the Smithsonian from 1956 to 1999 in the “Birds of the World” exhibit, only leaving twice for a short visit at the San Diego Zoo Golden Jubilee Conference in 1974, and again at the Passenger Pigeon Memorial dedication back at her home in Cincinnati. There is a bronze statue of Martha in front of the Japanese Pagoda that was once her home. The City and Zoo officials fashioned a plaque on the statue telling the story of the passenger pigeon; their once mighty numbers and how a single lady bird, the famous Martha, was not just the last of the breed but just another of the many species that would fall prey to man.
Martha stayed on display, back in her old home for quite some time, until the Smithsonian called her back for a new display. Today, you can see Martha on display at the “Objects of Wonder” exhibit, where she shares space with a skull from a Mountain Gorilla. She will remain there until the exhibit closes sometime in 2025. From there, who knows where the life/death and times of Martha the Passenger Pigeon will take her. For over 100 years, this simple bird has championed the memory of her long-lost species. Martha my Dear, THIS has been a tribute to you.
You can also see the passenger pigeon who was shot by the boy in Ohio, considered the last “free” of their breed, on display at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus, Ohio. That pigeon is affectionately called “Buttons” by the staff, because the woman who prepared the bird for display used black buttons for eyes. THAT image goes under the “sad but true” files of our stories.
This brings the story of Martha the passenger pigeon to a close. Our story started with five billion birds living free and ended slightly more than 100 years later with a single old maid, trapped in a cage her entire life, representing the once proud species at her death. Martha was an unknowing hero simply because she lived and died as a symbol of human greed and ignorance. The human race has a fixation and belief that we somehow OWN this plant and all that is on it. The reality is playing out, as we watch lions, tigers, bears (oh my) and, sadly, bees… who help sustain our lives with their very existence… dwindle in numbers and teeter towards standing shoulder to shoulder with Martha as a statistic in man’s march to destruction of the planet, or their time here on the planet.