End of a Once-Numerous Race: Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, Dies
In a cage in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914, Martha, a passenger pigeon, drew her last breath. With her passing something tragic happened: the passenger pigeon became extinct. Martha had been the last of her kind, the sole survivor of a species once so numerous only the buffalo and the locust could rival their staggering numbers.
They are largely forgotten now, but the huge flocks of passenger pigeons were once a dominant feature of the North American landscape. Journal entries from early explorers and settlers marvel at the huge numbers of birds they encountered. A later account from 1866 claimed a flock three hundred miles long passed overhead. Their great flights would darken the skies for hours. The birds were intensely communal, thronging together in nesting sites that occupied thousands of acres, building hundreds of nests in each tree. The volume of their cooing was said to be so loud that it drowned out the sound of a gunshot, and when the flocks flew overhead people said they made the noise of a roaring river or a pounding waterfall.
Human beings caused the extinction of the passenger pigeon. For one thing, the birds were slaughtered indiscriminately. People used to fire wildly at the flocks flying overhead for sport, seeing how many they could bring down with each shot. Then someone realized money could be made off these birds, and the commercial meat industry sealed their doom. Hundreds of thousands were netted, shot and clubbed to death, then shipped in boxcars. They were used as a cheap source of meat for slaves, then after the Civil War as food for the poor.
The other factor was deforestation. The passenger pigeon required vast expanses of woodlands for nesting sites and for food (acorns were a favorite). The increasing loss of habitat, coupled with the wholesale slaughter of the flocks, sealed their doom.
The following three newspaper articles are about Martha’s death and the extinction of her species. The first article was written upon hearing the news that Martha was dying; the other two were written after her death.
This article was printed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer and reprinted by the Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) on Sept. 7, 1914:
The Passing of a Race
The death of a single bird in a public zoo is usually of but passing importance, but there will be historic interest in the death of Martha, the veteran passenger pigeon in the zoo at Cincinnati. Martha is 29 years of age and is claimed to be the last of her race in the United States. With her death that class of wild pigeons will become extinct.
Within the memory of the present generation there were millions of these wild birds flying at will through the country from the Gulf to the Lakes. Through Ohio and Indiana there were vast flocks of them, their numbers being countless. Ravenous after one of their flights, they played havoc with many crops, and hunters employed nets, firearms and other devices to slaughter or frighten them away.
As their numbers became reduced they were hunted with great zeal and supplied material for most appetizing pies. They traveled in great flocks [and] were able to cover great distances in a flight—because of their migratory habits [they] were given their name. In size and color they were much like the domestic pigeon seen in most villages and cities. On the wing they could distance the domestic pigeon.
Because of their numbers their slaughter was ruthless, and they rapidly decreased in numbers. Gradually the flocks became fewer and of less numbers, and finally they ceased to travel. When they became scarce a few were secured for the zoo at Cincinnati. Gradually they have died, and the veteran bird, now weakened and near death, is claimed to be the sole survivor known of the millions seen only a few years ago.
In the country where the numbers were the greatest, final extinction of the race will be seen. The event of the extinction of a race will take place at the Cincinnati zoo.
—Cleveland Plain Dealer.
This article was printed by the Morning Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on Sept. 14, 1914:
A few days ago a distinguished individual died at Cincinnati. It was the last survivor of the once numerous race of the passenger pigeons. These birds had the habit in the days of their prosperity of flying southward in the Fall and returning to northern regions in the Spring. Persons now in middle life can well remember their migrations in the states of the Mississippi Valley. They began in the Fall with the first frosts and ended when the acorn crop was gone.
The flock of pigeons would become visible like a small cloud on the horizon. Gradually coming into full view, it expanded across the sky and sometimes clouded the entire segment from zenith to horizon with millions of invisible birds pressing upon those in the fore. Boys of that day watched the phenomenon with wonder. Where did all the pigeons come from? Where were they going? Their roosting places were in the hardwood forests which have vanished with the pigeons. Hundreds gathering on great oak limbs broke them from the trees. They swept the ground clear of acorns and other edible nuts and berries.
The birds were slaughtered with ruthless thoughtlessness. Young men caught them by the wagonload from their roosts by night. It was a favorite amusement to shoot into the dense flocks as they settled among the trees, killing hundreds “for fun.” Queer stories were told by the Winter firesides of the pioneers about wonderful pigeon hunts. One man had fired a bullet which split an oak limb where the birds were roosting. Their toes were pinched in the crack and thus he caught an even hundred alive with one shot. Every boy knew dozens of these tales and cherished the ambition to do something similar when he had a gun of his own.
In a few years the flocks of pigeons mysteriously diminished. When the boys who wondered at them in their teens had reached voting age they were seen no more. Today a passenger pigeon is a great rarity. Perhaps the one which died the other day in the Cincinnati zoological garden was the last of them. It is thus that we have dealt with all our natural resources.
This article was printed by the Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri) on Sept. 2, 1914:
Last Passenger Pigeon Dies
Death of the Bird in Cincinnati Zoo Makes Species Extinct
Cincinnati, Sept. 2.—The passenger pigeon, the last of its species, died yesterday at the zoo. It is believed the bird died of an apoplectic stroke, as it had a similar stroke several years ago. It was found dead beside the low roost made for it when it became too infirm to fly to its accustomed roost.
The bird was a female and the Cincinnati Zoo had a standing offer out for several years of $1,000 for any person who would find a male so that the race might be preserved. The dead bird was 29 years old. The carcass will be shipped to the Smithsonian Institution at Washington.
The North American passenger, or wild pigeon, is especially interesting from the marvelous numbers composing its flocks before the settlement of the interior of the country caused its almost total disappearance.
It is a large, slender bird, with a small head, notched beak, turned at the base, short, strong legs with naked feet; a long, acuminate tail and very long, pointed and powerful wings. It is a beautiful bird, with very graceful form and finely colored plumage, and formerly was found in almost all parts of North America.
The passenger pigeon is not, properly speaking, a bird of passage, as apparently its movements are consequent on the failure of a supply of food in one locality and the necessity of seeking it in another. Its power of flight is very great.
During the early part of the Nineteenth Century incredible numbers of pigeons were wont to roost at night and nestle in certain breeding places in the forests of the Mississippi Valley, where sometimes one hundred or more nests were seen in one tree. These thickly settled sections sometimes extended over tracts forty miles in length. Flocks of the pigeons were often seen flying in great, dense columns eight or ten miles long, at a height of several thousand feet. Some careful observers have declared that on some occasions the flocks were one hundred and fifty miles long.
The noise of wings and cooing of voices in their nesting places was so great as to drown the report of a gun. The multitudes which settled on trees broke down branches by their weight.