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Passenger Pigeon

MARTHA, THE LAST OF HER KIND

By Mary Nelesen

It has been a little over a year since I first learned of Martha, the last known Passenger Pigeon.

While attending the National Audubon Society Convention in July 2013, I happened upon an exhibit where people were encouraged to fold an origami pigeon to help commemorate the great flocks of Passenger Pigeons that once flew across the sky.

This exhibit was the initiative of The Lost Bird Project organized and developed by Scott Anger, Todd McGrain and Andy Stern. Their objective was to tell the story of the extinction of a species, and this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction.

I would like to share what I learned at that session and additional research I have done over the past year in regard to the Passenger Pigeon.

The Passenger Pigeon is an extinct North American bird. Named after the French word passage for “passing by”, it was once the most abundant bird in the world. It accounted for more than a quarter of all birds in North America. Some estimate three to five billion Passenger Pigeons were in the United States when Europeans arrived. The species went from being one of the most abundant birds in the world during the 19th century to extinction early in the 20th century.

By 1900, there were no Passenger Pigeons left in the wild. By 1914, there was just 29-year old (some accounts report 18-yr. old) Martha, named after Martha Washington, at the Cincinnati Zoo. People lined up to see her. She was a star.

Then on September 1, 1914, Martha’s body was found lying on the bottom of her cage. The Passenger Pigeon had gone from billions of birds to zero in about a century.

The Passenger Pigeon was found across most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. Its primary habitat was in eastern deciduous forests. Beeches and oaks produced the mast needed to support nesting and roosting flocks. It was one of the most social of land birds. It lived in colonies stretching over hundreds of square miles, was nomadic, and often chose to nest in a different location each year. Pigeon migration, in flocks numbering billions, was a spectacle to behold.

The Passenger Pigeon was an excellent flyer and is estimated to have averaged 62 mph during migration. Its diet consisted of beechnuts, acorns and chestnuts in fall, winter and spring. In summer it ate berries, earthworms, caterpillars and snails. It foraged in flocks of tens or hundreds of thousands. A foraging flock was capable of removing nearly all fruits and nuts in its path.

According to naturalist Alexander Wilson, when he was traveling in Kentucky in the early 1800’s, the sky suddenly became dark. He initially thought it was a tornado but then realized the sun had been blotted out by Passenger Pigeons. Wilson guessed that it contained over 2.2 billion birds – “an almost inconceivable multitude and yet probably far below the actual amount,” he wrote.

This is not to say the true population size was always this abundant. As with many species, it fluctuated depending on climate and food source.

So what happened to bring about their extinction? The major cause was commercial exploitation of pigeon meat on a massive scale, along with the rapid expansion of railroads that allowed the barrels of pigeons to be shipped to distant markets. Loss of habitat was also an important factor.

In the early 19th century, commercial hunters began netting and shooting birds to sell in city markets as food, as live targets for trap shooting, and even as food for pigs. This was easily done due to the Passenger Pigeons social behavior pattern of flocking and nesting together. In addition, the cutting down of Eastern forests severely affected their nesting sites and food sources.

By the time people realized the Passenger Pigeon was drastically declining in numbers, it was too late.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Passenger Pigeon’s extinction. For the entire year, bird groups and museums have been and will be commemorating the last Passenger Pigeon in a series of conferences, lectures, and exhibits.

The Lost Bird Project has placed a bronze sculpture of the Passenger Pigeon in Columbus, Ohio, the last known place where these birds were seen in the wild.

Todd McGrain’s memorial can be visited at the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio. Todd’s aim in making and placing the sculpture “is to give presence to the birds where they are now so starkly absent.” “These birds are not commonly known,” he says, “and they ought to be, because forgetting is another kind of extinction. It’s such a thorough erasing.”

In Susan Dudley Morrison’s book, Gone Forever, she writes; “The Passenger Pigeon is gone forever. Never again will anyone see the huge flocks that once blocked the sun. The beautiful bird taught us that life is fragile.  Earth’s wild things must be protected. If they aren’t, then they, like the Passenger Pigeon will vanish.”

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